Author Archives: Eric Karpinski

Celebrate Positive News

couple-high-fivingThe way we respond to positive news is more important to our relationships than the way we respond to the negative stuff.  Whether it’s with our intimate partners, friends, co-workers or family members, being proactive, positive and curious about good news is essential to having strong relationships.

So if your partner comes home, a good friend stops by or a colleague comes to your office to share a positive event with you, engage with them, celebrate and ask interested questions.  This is the good stuff of life!!!  Notice it, slow down for it, and celebrate it.  Not only will you help build that relationship, but you’ll get a nice kick of those infectious positive emotions.

The impact of celebrating positive news is true when we share big events like a promotion, winning a prize or finally losing that last 10 pounds. It’s also true when we share the little positive things like having a good day, receiving a gift or completing a project or task.  Whatever it is, find a way to engage in that positive conversation.

Active Constructive Responding

active-constructive-responding-300x259Shelly Gable, a researcher at UC Santa Barbara, is the world expert on this stuff.  Her research shows that when we engage with good news in a positive way, we build trust, intimacy, commitment and satisfaction within that relationship.  She calls it ‘active constructive’ responding, which is characterized by active listening, asking interested questions and sharing in the positive emotions that come up.  It’s about celebrating that good news together.  And it’s an amazing way to create positivity resonance (see my last post here.)

Other ways of responding

It’s no surprise that two other ways of responding produce the opposite effects.   ‘Active destructive’ responding is characterized by bringing up potential problems, like “This promotion will probably lead to more stress and longer work hours”.  Or ‘passive destructive’ responding is characterized by ignoring the speaker or having the listener immediately starting in on a story about themselves.   No surprise that these ways of responding reduce intimacy and trust.

What I found most interesting from the research is that a ‘passive constructive’ response — giving a simple acknowledgement of the positive event, “good job” or “that’s cool” with a slow response or without much energy hurts relationships strength just like the destructive modes.  This is true even when the sharer, “knew that their partner loved them.”

So to maintain and build up our relationships, look for more ways to engage and celebrate good news.

How to do it

This isn’t rocket science.   We inherently understand that being supportive about positive news is important.  Yet for me, many opportunities to connect over these small things get lost when I’m thinking about my own projects or troubles.  And I’ve been known to co-opt someone else’s celebration by immediately sharing something good that happened to me.   All of these things take away from the benefits you can tap into by engaging in their positive shares.    Here are a few things to think about in our busy, busy, busy lives…

Do it your way.   It’s important to be authentic.  If you are not typically an effusive person, don’t suddenly jump up and down and whoop and holler.  Find your own ways of showing interest and celebrating — simply spending a minute or two in supportive conversation about the topic with a smile is all it really takes.

Slow down – Often times the reason we don’t respond in an active constructive way is because we are so caught up in our own thoughts or are trying to get just one more thing done.  So the news that is brought just doesn’t register as important or relevant to us.   When you are approached, work on getting into the habit of putting those things on a short pause, if just for a minute, and give your whole attention to this friend, child or partner.  It’s worth it.

Put down those electronics – We’ve all felt the pangs of sadness when see videos like this, yet we are all guilty of doing this exact thing sometimes.   Stop trying to do two things at once.  That text/Facebook post will wait.  The ephemeral happiness when a friend or partner is excited to share something with you won’t.  We all know what it’s like to be standing there — live and in the flesh — playing second fiddle to a virtual connection.  It sucks.  And when we are excited to share something, it really sucks.  Doing one thing at a time is SO much better for our relationships.

Schedule it.  If you are truly in the middle of something and can’t take the time to listen, it’s ok to put off the conversation.  A quick, “I really want to hear this story, but need to finish this thought/email/project right now.  I’ll come find you in 5/10/30 minutes.”  Then make sure you do.

I’m guilty of putting off celebrations too often with my kids.  I get caught up in my to-do list and my stresses that I meet any interruption with a “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of something…?”  (i.e. a passive destructive response.)  It’s hard for me to switch gears sometimes, especially as my son is at the stage where he monologues ALL THE TIME, so it’s easy to ignore his constant buzz.  Yet in those times that I do take a break and look at him and engage in his stories, I feel how much that means to him, I feel the connection strengthening.  Of course I want to be that kind of dad.

Your Task:  Find two times each day this week and practice stopping and listening to good news.  Engage with eye contact, be enthusiastic (whatever that means to you), ask questions and see how much stronger those connections become.  The research is very clear all you need to do is slow down and listen.

Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach


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The Essence of Love: Shared Positive Emotions

Would you like your relationships to be stronger and feel more connecting?   The research shows that one of the most powerful ways to find deeper connection is through sharing positive emotions. We know that strong relationships are a primary driver of happiness and well-being. The process I share today is how we can tap into this endless source of positivity and bonding.

connectionYou know that experience of being totally in sync with someone – you’re in an engaging conversation and you feel connected.  You unconsciously mirror the actions and facial expressions of the other person.  You anticipate what they are going to say before they say it.  The two of you are feeling the same things, thinking the same things and sometimes your sense of self expands and you almost feel like the same person.  This is what Barbara Fredrickson, top positive psychology researcher, calls positivity resonance.

In her book, Love 2.0, she shares the research how these short bursts of shared positive emotion and connection are the essential building components of good relationships.  It’s in these moments that your brain, biochemistry and behaviors mirror each other, create a motivation to care about the other, and push you to invest in the other’s well-being.   These experiences are the core of what builds connection and a sense of closeness between two people.  And we can actively create more of these opportunities in our lives and in our relationships.

Positivity Resonance in Action

In my Science of Happiness keynotes and trainings, I have my audience do a simple gratitude exercise, where they write down 3 specific things they are grateful for (details here).  This is a well-known path to increasing happiness and it always creates a sense of contentment in the room and lots of smiles.  Then, as a follow up exercise, I have them pair off — one shares something from their list while the other one is instructed to listen intently.  As people share, the energy in the room absolutely erupts as many participants start to experience this positivity resonance.  They sync up as the listener starts to feel the positive emotions of the one sharing.  After the exercise, people consistently share that, not only do they feel great from the exercise but they feel close to the person they shared with, even when they’d never spoken more than a couple words together before.

As I watch these pairs of people connect, I notice they are often mirroring each other’s facial expressions and hand movements.  They lean in and are animated in their stories.  The research shows that if we could look into their bodies, we’d see the activity in their brains also mirroring one another, their physiology and heart rate doing the same dance, and certain connecting hormones (such as oxytocin)being released at the same time.  These shared emotions and this shared connection cause an entire symphony of biological synchrony, which leads to a sense of knowing the other person, of seeing them as they are rather than as we categorize them from afar.  And this leads to a mutual understanding and a desire to help the other.  This is connection at its best.  And it is this process repeated over time that makes friends of strangers, good friends of acquaintances and intimates of friends.  It’s the continued shared positive experiences that bind together long-term partners, family and close friends.

How to Create Positivity Resonance

These times of connection clearly happen on their own at times, but think of how much stronger your relationships can be (and how much more fun connecting with others could be) if you can open this kind of resonance more often.

Some general  tips:

  • Invest in your happiness.  When you are happy you are more likely to think beyond your self-interest to help and connect with others.  Your happiness also puts others at ease and helps to open others in a similar way.  This blog is full of ways to increase your happiness and the happiness habits, posted here, share simple proven and powerful practices you can do each day to tap into more positive emotions in your life.
  • Slow down and be present.  We all live at such a breakneck pace, constantly doing, doing, doing.  This doesn’t give time for the kind of bonding and connection that build into positivity resonance.  If you are constantly thinking about the next thing you need to do, you’ll never be open to these connecting experiences.   Let yourself fully be with the person that you are with right now.
  • Set a positive social script. Make a point to start conversations with a positive story or something you are grateful for.  Ask positive questions about what’s going well in their life or something good that happened to them today.  It sometimes takes people by surprise to start a conversation this way, but most of us are happy to dive in with a good story, setting the stage for resonance.  Take that risk to ask.
  • Listen deeply.  When you notice someone sharing a positive story or experience, bring your attention to them.  Let go of what you might say and let their words flow.  Lean in toward them, nod your head, use affirmative sounds, meet their eyes, ask encouraging questions.   Try to open up to the positive feelings they are experiencing.

Specific tips for developing positivity resonance with those already in your life

  • Relive shared experiences (memories). Carve out time to remember fun times together – trips, parties, adventures you’ve had.  Relive the details, share the stories, and put yourselves there as much as you can.  Your emotional centers don’t know the difference between imagining those experiences vs. actually doing them.  Let the energy build.
  • Anticipate an upcoming fun event together.  Planning a vacation?  Excited about a concert or upcoming escapade?  Talk about the details that you are looking forward to.  Put yourself there.  Build the excitement together.
  • Share gratitude – Like I do in my Science of Happiness keynotes I described above, do a gratitude exercise together.  Share what’s good in your life with each other.   Bonus points if you share the things you appreciate about the other one (see this post).

Specific tips for developing positivity resonance with new people you come across

  • Be ready anywhere.  Make a game of finding little bits of resonance throughout your day.   Try bringing a smile and a willingness to chat to the checkout lady or the person at the bus stop or anywhere around your office.
  • With people you want to get to know, look to find common ground – shared passions, hobbies, interests, groups.  Or shared experiences as parents/grandparents, or places you’ve visited. Share the things that make you happy and when you find a shared passion or interest, bring up some stories, or ask good questions to get them to share.

It’s not that we should try to turn every conversation toward the positive or that we should spend every minute looking for these types of connections.  It’s simply about creating more space to listen and to seed some of our daily interactions with positive intent.  And when we find some positivity, stay with it, and build it with the other person.  If we are proactive at this a few times a day, we will naturally create more positivity resonance.  This in turn will bond us more closely with the people in our lives and with our communities, leading us to experience more happiness, more connection and more love.  This is the wonderful stuff of life.  Tap into it more.

Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach



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Building Relationships: Put gratitude into words!!!

Are you ready to have your world ROCKED with one of the most secret and surprising tips on how to improve your relationships?

Here goes:  Look for the good in others and TELL THEM what you appreciate about them.  Often.

I know.  I know.  Earth-shattering, isn’t it?  While this bit of advice may be blindingly obvious, it’s also VERY effective.  If you want to improve any of the relationships in your life, take note…

The research

i appreciate youCouples:  John Gottman has been studying relationships for over 40 years in dozens of studies with thousands of couples.   By watching a couple interact over an area of disagreement for just a few minutes, he can predict relationships that will be successful and those that will fail with over 90% accuracy.  One of the key determinants of success or failure is the ratio of positive comments to negative comments.  Couples that happily stay together are those who have at least 5 positive comments to each negative one.  So if you often share (…ahem…) constructive criticism with the people you care about, you need to share at least five affirmative statements to keep yourself in the healthy relationship zone.

Business Team:  Similar research has been done on business teams in research led by Marcial Losada.  In his most well-cited study, he recorded an hour-long strategic meeting with over 60 business teams.  His researchers carefully coded every statement as either positive or negative.  Later he evaluated each team on objective data, including profitability, customer satisfaction and evaluations by superiors/peers/subordinates.   Those teams that were independently shown to be high performing – (i.e. highly profitable and well regarded by those with whom they did business) had positivity ratios around 6:1, meaning 6 positive statements for every negative one during their meetings.  By contrast, low performing teams had positivity ratios well below 1:1 and mixed performance teams had ratios around 2:1.*  This does not mean burying your conflict among nice little lies; it means looking for what is working, sharing those with your team and encouraging them to do the same.

Transfer your gratitude list to words

Last post I talked about creating a simple gratitude list for your relationships.  In this simple task, you write down 3 things that other people have done for you that you are grateful for and/or three things that are working in your relationships.  And do this daily for two or three weeks.  By regularly looking for things to appreciate in the people in your life and in your relationships, you can actively rewire your brain over time to find more of what’s going well.

This week is all about putting that gratitude list into action by sharing them with the people in your life.  This can exponentially increase the amount of positive emotions that you and your friends/coworkers/lovers feel.  Simply turn your gratitude list into actual conversations and texts, email messages and Facebook posts.  You get an initial dose of happiness by looking for and finding what’s going well.  You get another boost by sharing it with someone else.  They get a nice kick from receiving that appreciation which strengthens their bond with you.  And this can often prime them to look for the good in you or other people which can continue spiraling these good feelings and tightening bonds through your whole social network.  It’s a win-win-win-win-win!!!

As you make more of a habit of looking for and sharing what is good, not only does it retrain your brain to find more of these and share them more often, it can change the social script.  For some reason, so many of us greet each other with our problems or what’s difficult in life.  This happens at home, with friends and at work.   For many of us, our default social script is about how little time we have, how hard we’re working, who’s gotten in our way or created trouble.   You have the power to change this and set a new social script over time by bringing up the things that ARE working and the things that are going well.

What to do

Just do it.

Seriously.  Get out a piece of paper right now.






Make a list of 5 things that someone has done for you over the last 24 hours.  These don’t have to be life-changing,  OMG-THANK YOU, types of things.  Just simple little things, like someone holding the door for you or giving you a smile.  One of your kids doing something nice or a partner or friend making a good meal for you.  There is particular power in the small things that we all often take for granted.  Look for those and write ‘em down.

Now add a couple things that work well in one of your relationships.  Not necessarily something new or that has just changed, but just something this person does that makes life a little easier or something you know other people struggle with in their relationships.

Now pick at least 3 of these things and let each of these people know what you noticed and why.  Be as specific as you can while also being succinct.  You can send a quick 2-line email or a text or post to their FB wall or go down the hall and tell them.   Don’t defer it.   Do it right now.

And then check in with yourself.  How does it feel to send that appreciation?

Ongoing Practice

The key to making long-term change in your happiness and the strength of your relationships is to integrate these activities into your life in an on-going way.   Take a minute now to think about how you can best regularly share more positive comments with the people in your life.

Perhaps you want to go through the above process once per week or a couple times a month.  If that sounds good, put those reminders into your calendar now and include a link to the blog version of this post (

You can also formalize it with other people.  A lot of the companies I work with start their weekly team meetings with one person sharing something they appreciate about another one in the group.  Lots of couples do something called an appreciation shower, where you simply take turns saying positive things about the other, until you run out of things to say (or the comments just get too silly…).  These kinds of exercises can be done with anyone and can make a huge difference.

And if you want to make significant change and really lock in stronger neuro-pathways for noticing and sharing the good stuff, I’d recommend taking on one of these two habits.  Three weeks of a daily practice of either of these will help train your brain to notice and share the good stuff.   Details linked here:

Gratitude.  Focus this on your  relationships or keep it broader.  Both are beneficial!

Conscious Acts of Kindness.  Add in-person conversations as an option on top of daily email/texts.

All relationships can be improved with authentic words of positive appreciation.  Look for the good in others and express it to them.  Simple.  Powerful.  Do it!

Eric Karpinski,  The Happiness Coach


*  There has been some scientific criticism of some of Losada’s work with Barbara Fredrickson in December of 2013.  This challenged another part of this research and findings.  However, the research discussed here remains valid.

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Happiness and Relationships: Positive Ties That Bind

We are social creatures.  Our brains are wired for connection.  Our ability to live in harmony with each other is what has allowed human beings to thrive on this planet.  And much has been studied on why our relationships are essential to our well-being.

kid friendsThe power of our connections

There are dozens of studies showing the benefits of strong relationships to our happiness.  Two particularly powerful ones:

  • Martin Seligman and Ed Diener completed a study of the happiest 10% of the population.  They found only one characteristic that was common to every member of that group: “their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.”   While having strong relationships was not sufficient in itself to be in that upper echelon (there were unhappy people who had strong relationships too), there were no loners in that top group.  Strong ties are ESSENTIAL to a life well-lived.
  • One of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies ever undertaken was started in the 1930’s at Harvard.  The goals of the study was ‘to identify the key ingredients that lead to a rewarding life.’  268 men were enrolled as sophomores and probed and prodded, interviewed, and followed through wars, marriages, careers, kids, grandkids and old age.  By evaluating their health and longevity, happiness and life satisfaction and career and financial success, George Vaillant, who directed this study since the 60’s said, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”  And that “Our intimate attachments to other people— and them to us— matter and they matter more than anything else in the world.”

Whether it’s our romantic relationships, colleagues at work or good friends, other people matter.  Period.

Scientifically-proven methods to improve your relationships

We all know how complicated people and relationships can be.  And there is no end to the amount of advice you can find in magazines, books and television.  Fortunately, all kinds of relationships have been studied in-depth in scientifically valid ways.  Over the next few months, I’m going to be sharing the best of what science has to say about how to build more healthy relationships in our lives and to help our current relationships grow stronger.

This week, I’m going to start with the simplest and most powerful of these tools:

Gratitude for Others

This simple exercise can rewire your brain to look for all the good that others provide for you.   It’s an adaptation of the gratitude exercise that I teach at every talk I give, with a focus on your relationships and the people you see most in your life.

How to Do It

For the next two weeks, sit down at a set time each day and spend a few minutes writing down three things that other people have done for you that you are grateful for.  Be specific and explain why you are grateful for it.   Some recent examples from my life:

“I am grateful that my wife encouraged me to go out with my friends on Saturday night since she wanted to stay in.  It showed how much my happiness is important to her and that she fully trusts me to be out with my friends.”

“I love how my business partner started our conversation yesterday with a question about my weekend.  I know he’s crazy busy building up the company and the fact that he took the time to inquire about my life helps me feel like an integrated part of the team.”

“I so appreciate that my father sold me his old Prius (at a great price) when he stepped up to a new model.   He watches out for me even decades after I’ve become an independent and successful adult. “

“I love how my son gave me the biggest hug when he got home from school yesterday.  His energy really brought up my mood after a cranky and unproductive afternoon. “

Like in these examples, there is no need to look for huge life-changing experiences of gratitude.  In fact it’s in noticing the little things that you can find the greatest benefit.   Don’t overthink it; just write down those things that come to mind first.  There is no wrong way to do this exercise.  And as you do it, try to open up to those feelings of gratitude.  Let them spread from your mind to your whole body.  Wallow in those awesome feelings when they come.  Savor them.

How It Helps

Thousands of years of evolution have trained our brains to look for what’s wrong in life, what’s scary or isn’t working and then to try to make it better.  It’s called negativity bias.  When you let this bias drive, it’s hard to notice anything but faults and problems in your relationships.  If you go down this path too often, you create very well-worn neuro-pathways in your brain and this ‘finding fault’ perspective can become your default.  And — obviously — if you constantly share what’s wrong and how you want others to change for you, it can cause no end of friction in your relationships.

However, every time you turn your mind towards things and people that you are grateful for, it activates a different set of neuro-pathways that look for what’s good and working in your relationships.  Neuroscientists say that neurons that fire together, wire together.  So each time you look for things to be grateful for in other people, you begin to grow more synapses between those neurons.  Over time you start to grow more neurons along those pathways which make it easier and easier for your brain to look for and find these benefits.

One more reason it works: as much as we all like to believe in multi-tasking, your brain is really a single processor.  So every time you choose to look for something good from the people around you, it means you can’t also be lamenting what is missing or what is gone.   This helps create a more optimistic outlook in all parts of your life not just in your relationships.

This week’s challenge:  Kick off this gratitude-for-others practice today.  Spend a few minutes for these next two weeks writing down specific things other people do that you appreciate.   Slow down and pay attention to how you are feeling during these sessions and try to open up to the positive feelings in those thoughts rather than just checking the exercise off your to-do list.  If you do this practice regularly, you should start to notice that it gets easier and easier over time and you will start to see improvements in your key relationships.

Eric Karpinski,  The Happiness Coach


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Managing Negative Emotions: Everything You Need to Know

Managing Negative EmotionsAnger.  Frustration.  Stress.  Sadness.  Fear.  Disappointment.   Negative emotions are part of our lives and can hold incredible power over us.   Learning to appropriately manage these emotions is a powerful skill that can help you live a fuller, more engaged, meaningful and happy life.

I’ve written a lot about negative emotions since I started this blog two and a half years ago.  This week, I’m putting all this great information in one place as a guide to help you wade into this murky world and find a positive way through.

Happier, NOT happy all the time:  There is a LOT we can do to sustainably increase our happiness and decrease our negative emotions but this work is about becoming happier, NOT about being happy all the time.

Negative Emotions: My Adventures in Insomnia:   I’ve been going through my own adventures in negativity over the last several years and use myself as a guinea pig to test a lot of these tools.

Learning to Be Sad Can Increase Your Happiness:  When I say “manage” negative emotions, I don’t mean “squash down into oblivion so that you can pretend like everything is rosy and be a fake, plastic kind of happy.”  Once you give yourself permission to feel bad it opens up paths to more positive emotions in your life.

“Good Sad” vs. “Bad Sad”:  There are two major types of negative emotions: Necessary negativity (e.g. “good sad/mad/hurt/grief”) and Gratuitous negativity (e.g. “bad sad/mad/hurt/grief”).  Here’s how to differentiate them.

Ok, now that you can differentiate the gratuitous (bad) negative emotions from the necessary (good) negative emotions, what can you do about it?  I’ve grouped all the tools into two separate areas below.  The first is how to reduce the gratuitous, unnecessary, silly negative emotions that do nothing but make us needlessly suffer.  That is immediately below.  The second section is about how to embrace the necessary pain that living and loving in this world provides us.  It’s in facing these challenges and hard times that we most grow and learn.

And if you aren’t quite sure if those negative emotions you feel are gratuitous or necessary, try some of the tools in the ‘gratuitous’ set for a while.  If that doesn’t seem to help or if it feels like you are simply running away from the hard stuff, then move on to the ‘necessary’ tools.

Reducing Gratuitous Negativity

NoNegativityAct the Way You Want to Feel:  Most of us believe that our actions follow from how we feel, but in fact we often feel because of the way we act.  Here’s how to use this to your advantage.

Distract Yourself from Endless RuminationWe’ve all experienced times when we beat ourselves up with unfair criticism and endless cycles of doom-and-gloom thinking.  What is needed is a healthy distraction.

Take on the Voices in Your HeadLet’s be real here.  We ALL hear voices in our head and often these voices trigger a negative spiral that makes us feel bad about ourselves.

Choose your Board of DirectorsOne powerful way to manage repeated negative thoughts is to externalize and personify those voices and then bring supportive help into the discussion.

Find the Right Counter-FactWe compare our current situation to made-up alternatives all the time.  You can choose these scenarios in a more beneficial way.

Learn to fail or fail to learnFailure is a critically important part of any successful life. It turns out that if we can’t learn to fail then we simply fail to learn.

Defuse Negativity LandminesWe all have negative emotional landmines in our lives.  These things consistently and predictably affect us in a negative way.  Learn to identify and reduce their effect.

Good Night, Insomnia!:  If your negativity is showing up as troubled sleep there is a lot you can do to address this symptom.

Embracing Necessary Negativity

Embracing Necessary Negativity: Journaling to Heal:  One of the most powerful ways to let necessary negative emotions in is to write about them.  Going towards the pain through writing can allow these emotions to work through your body and mind and ultimately allow you to come out the other side.

Embracing Necessary Negativity: Comforting Yourself:  As we let these necessary negative emotions in, it’s key to provide comfort and support for ourselves.

Self-Compassion: A Powerful Antidote to Self-Judgment:  Bad things happen to good people.  One of the best ways to manage this unfortunate bad stuff is by developing self-compassion.

Authenticity: Shining a Bright Light into your Darkness:  Shame is one of the most pervasive and insidious of the negative emotions and can be at the root of many of the negative voices in your head.

Managing Negativity: When to Seek Professional Help:   If you are experiencing a lot of negative emotions in your life, seeing a mental health professional may be just the ticket to get through this recurring negativity in a constructive and helpful way.

Eric Karpinski,  The Happiness Coach


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Managing Negativity: When to Seek Professional Help

Psychologists and psychiatrists and therapists, oh my!

Psychologists and psychiatrists and therapists, oh my!

Does the thought of seeing a therapist fill you with dread or give your ego a big hit?  If you are experiencing a lot of negative emotions in your life, seeing a mental health professional may be just the ticket to get through this recurring negativity in a constructive and helpful way.

Caveat/Notice/Limit of Liability/Etc

People are very careful in the mental health fields.  I’m a coach. On my first day of coach training, I was told to start seeing clients immediately with no supervision.   In the licensed medical/helping professions, practitioners are in training for years and must complete state and national licensing exams before being able to see clients without supervision.  This makes sense because many of their clients (also sometimes called patients) can be from the unstable side of the mental health continuum and there are risks that they may hurt themselves or others if their mental health professional isn’t well-trained and careful.   So understand that this post is simply my view on this subject – it’s the opinion of one person who’s on his own journey and who’s coached a few others through the ups and downs of getting professional mental health support. [“Cover Your Ass” rant complete 😉 ]

The important signs

The formal list of potential signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety is very long (including near-universal experiences such as irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbances and ‘excessive worry’), likely capturing most of us in its breadth.   So how can we know when it’s time to take the signs seriously and make that initial appointment? Here’s the very clear ‘it’s time to get help’ list:  if you have suicidal thoughts or think often about hurting yourself or someone else; if your ability to function at work or in your relationships has taken a major dive; if you find yourself reaching for the wine bottle or other drugs on a regular basis or if you find you are isolating yourself from the people you care about.  These are all signs that it’s time to consider reaching out to a professional for help.

Why else?

But there are many reasons to find a good therapist long before suicidal thoughts or substance abuse rear their ugly heads.   Hiring a professional will put you on the proactive path of facing what’s troubling you instead of running away.  It can lead to incredible growth and self-understanding.  You’ll get important insights into your unconscious and reactive patterns to the people and events in your life.   Doing this work can put you on a path towards making long-term positive change.

You’ll also get access to someone who’s seen hundreds of clients during their training and career.  They have seen everything before and likely taken other clients through similar journeys to yours.  They can provide amazing context that what you are facing has been faced by many before and make suggestions for how to move through it.  And they will act as a mirror reflecting back things that you may not notice and bringing otherwise invisible patterns to the surface.

They will also bring a realistic perspective on how long and how much effort it takes to make real change.  As a perfectionist, I was impatient to fix my problems and get back to ‘regular life’.  Over the two years that I’ve been working with my therapist, I’ve come to realize that these challenges are a part of me and aren’t going away anytime soon.  But I’ve learned how to manage them and better recognize when they are trying to influence my life in a way I don’t want them to.

Be aware

My biggest caveat about the mental health profession is that traditional psychology is about diagnosing disease and figuring out a path to ‘cure’.  And while some treatment orientations have moved away from this, if you are hoping to get your treatment paid for by your health insurance then your therapist has to have a diagnosis.  So be ready for that.

When I started seeing my therapist, she used words like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, perfectionist and other concepts with lots of negative connotations.  It was a shock to me to have these words associated with competent, capable, functional little ole me.  It shook my sense of self.  But it was also incredibly freeing for me to define some of my traits in this negative way.  I had been trying to ‘happy’ my way through the hard stuff for years to only limited success.  By defining some of my struggles as a disorder, it opened up a whole new set of tools that I’d ignored for years because they were for ‘sick people.’  It also helped me take my treatment more seriously.  My own self-awareness and growth has taken a huge jump over these last couple years as a result.

How to choose

If you are ready to start going down this path, you can find a list of therapists here  and your health insurance may have a list of recommended helping professionals.  Or if you know someone else who’s gone through this, ask for their recommendations.  As you read through profiles or websites, see if there are any that specialize in the challenges your are facing or in your age group.  Read the descriptions and pick a few that might work for you.  Then have an initial conversation.  Some will chat with you on the phone while others will want you to come in for an initial session.  In those initial interactions, you are looking for some connection, trust and that you feel safe with them.  You’ll be sharing a lot of intimate details of your life for this to be effective, so you need to feel you can trust this person.  And you want to have someone who will push you at times and help you face things you subconsciously may be avoiding.  So trust is important, but so is honesty…

Avoid psychiatrists as your first pass.  In my experience, psychiatrists (the MDs of the mental health world) are great at managing medications and their side effects, but are generally not trained to do the hard work of therapy with you.  They just don’t have that kind of time (or at least the costs would be prohibitively expensive) to get into that level of detail.

Coaching vs. Therapy

I’d be remiss in my self-promotion duties if I didn’t mention coaching here.  The coaching mindset is around moving forward towards the change you want in your life.  And coaching and the mental health field are becoming more and more alike.  Many psychologists and therapists are adding coaching to their portfolio of services and coaches manage through negative emotions with their clients all the time.  Generally if you are wrestling with what feels like deep personal challenges that are dominated by negative emotions, if you fall into any of the categories in ‘the important signs’ above or if want insurance to pay for this work, you’ll be better off going through the psychologist/therapy route.   If there are other changes you want to make, either group can help you get there.  Just find a person you trust and who has helped others find what you are looking for.

Your task

Take a minute now to think about your life.  Are you experiencing any of the get-help-now symptoms?  Do you want to take a proactive role in getting through a negative experience?  If so, consider bringing on a therapist or other mental health professional.  Take a look at some of the resources for therapists in your area and see if any of them pull you in or talk to a friend who’s gone down this path to find out what they learned and how they changed.  Good luck!!!

Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach

Authenticity – Shining a Bright Light into your Darkness

Today we’re going to talk about one of the most pervasive and insidious of the negative emotions; shame.

authenticityPowerful word, right? You may be thinking, “Huh?  My issue is stress/anxiety/ perfectionism.  What does this big ole topic have to do with me?” Like many of you, it’s an emotion I didn’t own when I first heard about this research.  I’m not “ashamed” of my life, I thought.   But as I read more of the work, I realized how much shame was actually at the root of so many of the negative voices in my head, that it is the source of power of my inner critic.

Shame is simply the fear that I’m not good enough (or smart enough, successful enough, beautiful enough, etc).  Shame asks, “Is there something about me that if others see it, they won’t find me worthy of acceptance and connection?”   We all have shame and the research shows that the less we talk about it and the less we admit we’re feeling these things, the more power it has over us.  Shame grows bigger and stronger in the dark.

So many of us are sure that if we show our true selves, that if we’re authentic about all of who we are, that we won’t be loved.  And we waste so much energy trying to be the person we think we are supposed to be that we lose who we really are.

The Research

Brené Brown is a shame researcher with an amazing TED Talk (over 12 million views) and book.  For her research, she conducts in-depth interviews with people about their lives — the good stuff, the bad stuff, everything.  Over the years she’s collected thousands of stories that have helped uncover some very important aspects of human nature.  For most people, shame runs a good part of their lives with a constant refrain of “Am I good enough?” This gets in the way of their ability to be who they are and to connect with others.

But there was “also story after story of men and women who were living these amazing and inspiring lives.”  And she found just one thing that differentiated these two groups.  The inspiring group believed that they were worthy of love and belonging.  That’s it.  A simple mindset change is all that keeps the majority of us from feeling worthy.

How to do it

Brené goes into a lot of detail on how to cultivate this feeling of worthiness in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. If this idea intrigues you I highly recommend it.  One of the most important components is self-compassion which I explained in significant detail in my last post and which at its heart is really about being kind to yourself.

Today I want to highlight the other most essential piece:

Authenticity – Be real.  I know this is easy to say and so hard to do.  It’s literally about taking those fears you have about yourself and sharing them with others.  It’s about putting your greatest vulnerabilities into words and actually speaking them.  To another person.

Now before you go trumpeting all those fears on Facebook or in the conversation you just started on the bus, let me get a little more specific.  You want to share these things with someone who’s earned the right to hear them from you, someone you trust and who’s a part of your life.  And it’s good to preface such a conversation with specific requests that they don’t try to fix the problem and — at least for this first conversation — you aren’t looking for advice or ways to make it better.  Instead you simply want them to listen and love and accept you for both your strengths and your struggles.

Think through the people in your life who might fit this bill.  Do you already have some confidants that you could lean on to do a little more here?  If not, who are some people in your life that seem grounded, trustworthy and may be willing to spend some time listening?  And if you are new to being vulnerable, you don’t have to jump right into your most sensitive fears.  Start small and see how this person reacts. See whether you feel heard and held with respect.  The key is to get started.

Authenticity and self-compassion when practiced together can help you:

“Wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.  It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

— Brené Brown, from the Gifts of Imperfection

[Once again in this blog, I find myself hearing reflections of Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live (remember him?  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and gosh darn it, people like me!”) in the words I write, which Brené, as a former if-you-can’t-measure-it-it-doesn’t-exist kind of researcher, fully acknowledges.  The difference is the scientific thoroughness of her work, so set aside any concerns about the cheesiness of this approach and try it out.]

My Shame Story

In the fall of 2012, I started taking SSRIs (the class of anti-anxiety/anti-depression drugs that includes Prozac, Paxil, etc.) to help tamp down the intense anxiety I had been experiencing for the past several years.   And I was embarrassed about it.  As the happiness coach, wasn’t I supposed to be so knowledgeable about emotions and so strong in my happiness that I shouldn’t NEED to go on these meds?  And I went through some intense rumination cycles as I put so much importance on how others were going to view this decision.  At first I didn’t tell anyone except my wife and even then I couched it in the language of ‘experimenting so I can give better advice to my clients’.  But the truth was my anxiety was interfering with my ability to live. All the self-work I’d been doing just wasn’t enough.

And as I cycled alone in deeper rounds of not being good enough, of not being strong enough to do this on my own, I fell deeper and deeper into the shame trap.   And then I saw a copy of Brené’s book on my shelf and was reminded that this was exactly the stuff I should share with others.  So I opened up to several friends about the challenges I was facing and my decision to start taking SSRIs.  And it was hard to share this vulnerability, this weakness with others who I wanted to think I was strong.  And as I shared, I was looking for those signs of disappointment or judgment from them that I felt I deserved.  But for most of those conversations, that didn’t come.  Instead I got love and understanding and awareness that even my most put together, grounded friends have struggles.  And of course the challenge didn’t end with those disclosures.  While I’m off of the meds now, by the end of that year I could count on two hands the number of people that knew I was taking them..  I guess posting about it here is the next step on my journey.  😉

Your Challenge This Week

Make a short list of those people you could confide in.  Then set up a conversation over a meal or coffee in the next few weeks.  Talk about this research if you want to set the stage.  Then share something that’s embarrassing or shameful to you.  Share something that you hide from others.  Give it a try.  It’s a path to sharing and showing and ultimately coming to terms with the real you.

Eric Karpinski

The Happiness Coach


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Self-Compassion: A Powerful Antidote to Self-Judgment

Bad things happen to good people.  As much as we wish it weren’t true, it’s a reality of life.  New research shows that one of the best ways to manage this unfortunate bad stuff is by developing self-compassion.

self-kindness-self-compassionWhat is “Self-Compassion”?

Think of self-compassion as treating yourself the way you would treat a beloved friend.  What would you say to this friend  in the situation you find yourself in?  Probably not, “You’re such a jackass,” or “You always do this to yourself,” or, “This is clearly going to be a disaster.”  Yet many of us — me included — talk to ourselves this way.

Kristin Neff from University of Texas at Austin and Christopher Germer from Harvard are two of the leading researchers on self-compassion and they describe the three key tactics of self-compassion as:

Mindfulness – Over 20 years of research (and 2000 years of practical experience) show that mindfulness, or clearly seeing negative emotions without judgment, is essential to moving through these emotions in a healthy way.  Through years of conditioning, many of us immediately suppress negativity or distract ourselves from it while others wallow in it, over-identifying with the negativity and exaggerating it.  Mindfulness is about taking a balanced approach of simply noting what is happening in our emotional world.  This allows us to more readily work through difficult emotions, to learn from them and move on.  I’ve discussed mindfulness at length in this blog – a good overview of mindfulness can be found here, and links to more can be found here.

Common Humanity – It may seem obvious, but suffering and feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the human condition.  No one can live and love in this world without feeling these things.  When we recognize that we’re not alone in our pain, it can help us feel more connected to others which is another important path through.  It can also help us reach out for help and support, rather than isolate ourselves which compounds our negativity.

Self-kindness – The most important component of self-compassion, however, and the core focus of Neff and Germer’s work, is self-kindness.  Self-kindness is simply bringing warmth and understanding to yourself when you suffer, fail or feel inadequate.  Many of us are mean and judgmental towards ourselves when things don’t go our way.  Imagine how much better life would be if you — the one person who is ALWAYS with you — defaulted to kindness and understanding when things don’t go according to plan.

Self-Compassion is Healthier than Self-Esteem

Over the last 30 years, there has been a huge focus in the ‘self-help’ world on building self-esteem.  The challenge is that self-esteem is largely rooted in comparison to others; high self-esteem has a built-in “I’m as good as/better than others like me.”  To feel good about ourselves in this self-esteem model, we need to be the best at something – the best parent, employee, boss or the most attractive or hard-working person we know in order to feel of value.

Research has shown a number of serious problems with this approach.  Always competing with others can lead to a sense of isolation and separation.  And once you’ve got self-esteem, it’s a constant effort to keep it, as any failure creates doubts of our value.  Self-esteem has also been linked to aggression, prejudice and anger towards those who threaten that sense of self-worth.

Self-compassion is a much better path forward.  By bringing kindness to our failures, to our shortcomings and to our imperfect selves, we limit the amount of damage we do to ourselves.  By acknowledging our weaknesses and loving ourselves anyway, we provide much more stable basis for confidence and ability to step back up and try again.  We see ourselves more clearly and can make whatever changes are necessary to address our suffering.

My Experience

As a success driven person, I initially balked at this approach.  If I give myself love no matter what happens, then might I lose my drive and motivation?  But I found just the opposite.  As I stepped into self-compassion, I found I was willing to make more mistakes and fail more which pushed me to take more risks and find even bigger success.

self-compassion quoteHow to become more self-compassionate

Practice. Practice.  Practice. Most of us have lots of opportunities to be kinder to ourselves.  When your day is full of self-critical comments, work on listening in to what’s happening in your mind.  Then practice being kind and understanding to yourself – just as you would a young child still figuring out their way in the world.  It only takes a few instances of self-compassion to change your day and bring in more light.

A more proactive way to build up your self-compassion and self-kindness muscle is to use the self-compassion meditations created by top researchers in the field.  These integrate the three main components of self-compassion and help retrain your mind to tap into the benefits of this practice.  You can download them on their websites:  Kristen Neff, Christopher Germer.  Or get started right here with two of my favorites (left-click to listen or right-click to download with ‘save link as’).

Mindful Self-Compassion Meditation (from Dr. Germer)

Self-Compassion/Loving Kindness Meditation (from Dr. Neff)

Give yourself 10-15 minutes of quiet time when you listen and follow along with the instructions in the meditation.  Each is self-explanatory.

Your Challenge

1)  Find 3 opportunities to change your thinking over the next week.  Practice bringing some compassion and kindness for yourself when things get a little rough

2)  Download one of the above meditations and listen to it at least one time this week.  Give yourself the gift of love.

Self-compassion is a powerful tool to help you work through whatever negative stuff comes up in your life.  I takes practice to learn these skills, start today.

Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach
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Embracing Necessary Negativity: Comforting Yourself

The research is clear.  The only healthy way to manage necessary negative emotions (i.e. the external “bad” stuff like the death of a loved one, job or relationship loss, or significant disappointment) is to let those emotions in.You must let yourself fully feel and experience them. 

giveyourselfahugLast time we talked about journaling to heal, this week we’ll focus on a simple and proven way that we can comfort ourselves while we work through these emotions.  We’ll be using a self-compassion meditation called Soften, Soothe and Allow.

How It Works:

The Soften, Soothe and Allow tool comes from two top researchers in the field of self-compassion research – Dr. Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Christopher Germer from Harvard.   The short version:  get mindful of where in the body you feel the emotion, soften the area around it, soothe yourself as you go through the difficulty and allow those feelings and those emotions to be there.

This tool does several things that can help you work through this necessary negativity (for a review of necessary vs. gratuitous negativity, click here).  First, because your mind is like a single processor, it anchors your focus on the body which pulls energy from the endless “spin-cycle” of rumination.  Second, it helps us accept that negative emotions are a part of life.

Third, this meditation helps you become the person in your life who can soothe and calm yourself in trying times.  When we are kind to ourselves, Dr. Neff says, “We start to feel cared for, accepted, and secure.  We balance the dark energy of negative emotions with the bright energy of love and social connection.  These feelings of warmth and safety then deactivate the body’s threat system and activate the attachment system, calming down the amygdala and ramping up the production of oxytocin” which helps put these negative emotions into a bigger perspective. And guess what, you are the one person in your life who is always around when you are feeling down.

This meditation can help you be a great source of comfort in trying times.

How To Do It:

The easiest way to start practicing this meditation is to use one of the guided meditations provided by the original researchers.

Kristin Neff’s  Listen    Download (right click and ‘save link as’)

Christopher Germer’s  Listen    Download  (just click to download this one)

The instructions within the meditations themselves are very clear and easy to follow even if you’ve never meditated before.  And you don’t need to listen to the entire 15 minutes each time, just a couple minutes can allow in some of the benefits.

There are 3 core components of this meditation (adapted from Dr. Neff’s book, ‘Self-Compassion’ and Dr. Germer’s meditations).  You can do these on your own using the text below or use the recorded meditations above.

And if you read this and think it’s some crazy woo-woo, Stuart Smalley-like practice for weird hippies, think of the credentials of the researchers (Harvard?  Woo-woo?!?) In fact, I dare you to authentically try it and see whether it works for you.


To begin, sit or lie down with your back on the floor and try to locate the difficult feeling in your body.  Where is it centered?  Describe the sensations to yourself — tingling, pressure, tightness, sharp stabbing, etc.  Does it feel hard and solid or fluid and shifting?  Is there a color sound to the sensation?  Maybe all you feel is numbness. Bring your attention to whatever sensations you have.

Then try to soften into that location in your body.  Let the muscles be soft without forcing them, as if you are applying heat to a sore muscle.  Just soften that place in your body.   You can say quietly to yourself, “soft, soft, soft” to enhance the process.


Once you are in touch with the painful emotion, send it compassion.  Tell yourself how difficult it is to feel right now and let yourself know you are concerned about your own well-being.  Try using terms of endearment if it feels comfortable for you, like, “I know this is really difficult, my friend,” or “ I’m sorry you’re in such pain, my dear.”  You can softly caress the spot where the painful emotion is lodged, put your hand over your heart or give yourself a soft hug.  Reassure yourself that it’s ok, that all will be well, and that you will give yourself the emotional support needed to get through this difficult experience.


Finally, just allow any discomfort to be there.  We are so trained to try to suppress unpleasant sensations and push them away.  Allow it to stay; experience it for what it is.  Go back into what it feels like.  Give it space to move and change.  Let the discomfort come and go as it pleases.   Let go of the wish for the feeling to disappear and at least for now, give it permission to be there.

Whenever you find yourself get carried away thinking about the situation driving your painful feelings, simply bring your awareness back to the physical sensation in your body and start again.

Your Challenge

This is what we call an “as needed” intervention.  Next time you are feeling a wave of negativity, give this a try.  Put the recordings onto your phone so you can access them anywhere.  Try it and see.  It’s a great way to allow these feelings to work themselves through you.

Eric Karpinski,  The Happiness Coach


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Embracing Necessary Negativity: Journaling to Heal

Let’s say you feel like crap.  And — this time — you know it’s driven by something external.  Maybe you lost your job, someone dear to you passed on, you didn’t get a promotion you’d been expecting, or an important relationship just ended.  This is the necessary negativity in our lives — negative-emotions1the negativity that comes to all of us sooner or later.   And it still feels like crap.   (read about necessary vs. gratuitous negativity here)  It’s clear from the research that the only way to manage these negative emotions in a healthy way is to let them in.  That’s right.  Let. Them. In.

The key is to go towards the pain, to be present for it and allow it to work through your body and your mind.   Over the next several posts we’ll be talking about tools you can use to go into this pain, work through it and ultimately come out the other side having grown from the experience.   (*** One critically important caveat is to check-in with yourself.  If you are showing signs of severe depression — not able to get out of bed for several mornings, consistent sleep disturbances or suicidal thoughts —  seek immediate help from a licensed therapist or psychologist.  It’s not the time to work through your pain alone.)

Today I’ll focus on one of the most well-studied and well-understood tools for working through negative emotions:   expressive writing.

The Research

More than 200 studies over 25 years have evaluated the benefits of expressive writing about emotional upheaval.  These studies show that there are profound benefits — less depression, reduced anxiety, better overall health, fewer doctor visits, improved immune function and better sleep.   Students who go through the process get better grades and laid-off employees find new jobs more quickly.

It sounds sort of woo-woo, and no one knows exactly why this works so well, but researchers believe that expressive writing helps us organize events and emotions in our mind.  This allows us to make some sense of what happened, to come to terms with it or to start to accept it.  Instead of keeping busy suppressing these thoughts, expressive writing forces us to really dig in and sort them out.

How To Do the Expressive Writing Method

  • Pick a time and place where you won’t be disturbed
  • Write for a minimum of 15 minutes
  • Write continuously.  Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or making whole sentences.  Just write.
  • Do this for 4 consecutive days
  • Hand-write or type on a computer, it doesn’t matter
  • Write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about this upsetting experience. Let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your greatest fears or hopes, people you have loved or love now, or your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?  It is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.
  • This writing is for you and not to be shared.  When writing, plan to throw away, delete or burn whatever you write.

For many people doing this writing makes them more upset for a time.  But just like watching a sad movie this typically goes away in an hour or two while the benefits can last a lifetime.

Your Task

If things are going well for you right now, there’s no need to do this process.  But if you are struggling with some emotional upheaval in your life, take on this simple writing assignment.  Commit to working through the difficult emotions and you’ll start to have a better understanding  and feel more control, which will ultimately help you get past these challenges and grow from them.

Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach
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