Author Archives: Eric Karpinski

Mindfulness: It slices! It dices! And that’s not all!

Mindfulness is like the swiss army knife of happiness practices. In past blogs, I
talked about how mindfulness can increase happiness, induce calm and create powerful insights into how your mind works . As they said in ‘80s
infomercials, “But that’s not all!” In fact, studies have shown that mindfulness practices are useful in the actual treatment of a broader set of issues, such as chronic pain, stress, anxiety, insomnia, eating disorders, addiction and in preventing depression relapse.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Jon Kabat-Zinn was the first to bring mindfulness to therapeutic use in the US. He was a scientist who wanted to evaluate the health benefits of mindfulness. So he took something people thought of as squishy and un-scientific and made it something that could be taught consistently and used in controlled scientific studies in the same way that pills and other therapies are tested. He called it the

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Over the last couple decades the majority of the studies that show the medical benefits of mindfulness are based on MBSR.

The 8-week program consists of:
• Daily mindfulness meditations that are 45 minutes in duration
• Weekly two-hour group meetings with a trained facilitator to provide teaching,
support and accountability and
• A full day mindfulness retreat near the end of the program.

The MBSR program was started at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, but with its clinical success has been expanded to medical centers and hospitals in most major cities all over the world.

I went through a local MBSR program earlier this year as a tool to help manage my insomnia and anxiety. It was intense and challenging to make that level of commitment, but it gave me some powerful insights into my own struggles. Most importantly, it gave me some perspectives on accepting more of that anxiety, of being with it instead of suppressing it or trying to eliminate it. And (“It dices!”) I’ve been sleeping a lot better since completing the program.
If you want to find out more about MBSR as a tool to get a handle on your stress or a medical issue you’re facing, you can find programs in your area through a Google search (MBSR and your city). They usually run about $500. While it is a big time commitment, it is a powerful and proven way to help manage stress and other life challenges.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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What You Get from 10 Days of Silence

(Of course that title is facetious — each person would get something different, based on the raw materials they bring — but here are a few tidbits of what I learned in my ten days of silence at the Spirit Rock retreat in Joshua Tree. And yes, if you’re wondering, silence means silence. Not even eye contact with others, so there’s no social-interaction-as-a-path-to-happiness option!)

From breathing to bliss
For the first few days, the instructions are pretty straightforward: Keep your attention on your breath. When you notice sensations, sounds or thoughts starting to pull your focus, bring your mind gently back to the breath.

After two full days of this practice, I started having blissful periods of contentment and happiness. It was like being on happy drugs, floating through parts of my day, enjoying being alive. It was awesome.

For some people, this is the purpose of meditation. In what’s referred to as “concentration” or “absorption” meditation, you can reach these and even deeper states of contentment and tranquility. While the teachers at Spirit Rock encouraged us to enjoy these states when they came, they also reminded us that the purpose of “insight” meditation (the type I typically am referring to when I talk about meditation) is not to escape the world. Instead, meditation and mindfulness helps us better understand how our minds work so that we can live IN the world in a wiser, kinder and more self-determined way.

Insights by watching thoughts.
Emotions and thoughts are like sounds. They start from nothing, are here for a time and then fade back into nothing. After the first few days at the retreat, we started expanding our meditation practice to include thoughts and emotions as the objects of our meditation, instead of just our breath. By maintaining some awareness of the breath, we could observe how thoughts come and go, rather than getting caught up in the content of what we were thinking.

Insights come from noticing thought patterns and emotional responses, from sensing what these thoughts are pushing us to do.

As I quieted down, I noticed several key patterns for myself. For example, planning is a default mode for me. As I watched my thoughts, I observed how I developed plans for everything – work, relationships, social opportunities, movies I wanted to watch, etc. And it was amazing how repetitive my mind was – riffing on the same ideas and themes over and over.

Then I got to watch my reactions as I sometimes got lost in these planning thoughts. I’d notice how frustrated I got when I couldn’t stay focused on my breath. I’d start beating myself up for not being able to stay focused, then I’d watch the anger rise and watch the judgment of the anger. It gave me an awareness of how often I speak to myself in negative ways, how judgmental I am of myself when things don’t go the way I want them to. I realized how conditional my self-love was — how I’d generously pour on the love
when I was meeting my goals and achieving, but withhold that love to try to get myself to keep moving, to keep achieving. Not the way I want to live my life.

This is the power of insight.

Don’t scratch that itch!
One of the instructions for mindful meditation is to sit with slight discomforts that come up, like an itch or a sore knee. At first this seemed kind of silly – what value is there in extending the time of an itch?

But it can be a powerful practice. We spend much of our lives trying to avoid pain. We scratch that itch, defend a perceived slight or yell at our kids to be quiet when we’re engaged in something else. By the practice of tolerating some discomfort, you can gain tremendous freedom to choose how to act.

By not immediately reacting to such stimuli, you create time and space for what is called response flexibility. And it’s in this pause between stimulus and reaction that you can make an active decision about how to best respond. That short pause can return the power to the rational part of your brain. This can have incredible benefits in our relationships, our work and even how we drive.

Not many of you can spend ten days in silence in the desert in this type of intense self- learning. But the basic concepts — meditation as a path to insight, watching thoughts and emotions, learning not to react immediately and unthinkingly to stimuli — are all concepts you can start tapping into with meditation any length and even with mindfulness in your normal life. It’s just about paying more attention to what is happening at any moment.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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Ten days of silence, starting… NOW

Last night I went into silence at a Spirit Rock meditation retreat.  I’m currently surrounded by 150 people, but won’t be speaking to any of them for the next 10 days

 

My resolution for 2012 was to expand and fully commit to my meditation practice.  I took a Mindfulness Bases Stress Reduction class earlier this (more about that later) and I committed to going on this retreat.  Ten days of training my mind to stay where I put it. 

 

Part of me is looking forward to the quiet and the chance to step away from all my responsibilities.  To just sit and watch my thoughts, watch my breath and work at being present.  But another part of me is scared witless about what I’ll find when my mind quiets down. 

This is my second time at an extended meditation retreat.  I came to this same retreat 3 years ago and left changed.  It was here that I decided to leave the comfort of a financially stable biotech career to start on my path to becoming the happiness coach (if you are curious, you can read about that experience here.  During that week, I felt a full range of intense emotions from deep fear and loneliness to feelings of ecstasy, freedom and hope.  I’m curious to see what happens this time around…

 

Life on retreat

Life on retreat is simple.  Forty-five minute periods of sitting and walking meditation are interspersed through each day with breaks for mindfully-eaten meals, meditation talks each evening and 3 one-on-one interviews with instructors over the retreat.   That’s it.  No clutter, no schedules to remember, no cell phones or email, no kids needing homework help, no social interaction.  Just ten days with me and my mind. 

 

Expectations

Unlike with daily mindfulness practice, there isn’t much scientific data from these extended retreats.  But participants find that once the clutter and do-do-do of modern life recedes, answers can come, life decisions and goals can become clear, the minutia of life don’t seem as important.  It’s different for everyone of course. 

 

For me, my primary goal is to strengthen my own abilities to stay focused and to begin living more of my life in the present.  I’ve noticed over the last few months how much time I spend planning and thinking about the future.  I miss a lot of what’s going on now and my intention is to change that. 

But I’m working hard to let go of all other expectations.  To just let things flow.  Wish me luck…

 

 

Eric Karpinski

The Happiness Coach

 

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Mindfulness and Meditation II: Expanding the Practice

Last week I introduced the idea of mindfulness and its formal practice of meditation.  The data show that meditation done for as little as two minutes per day can increase happiness and lead to better  levels of concentration, a greater sense of calmness and more empathy. 

If you are brand new to meditation, try the 2 minute meditation I introduced last week   and stay with it for 21 days. This is a great way to introduce yourself to meditation and many of its benefits without a significant time commitment.  If that is enjoyable and valuable for you, consider slowly increasing your meditation time by adding a minute or two each day. 

Aim for 15 to 20 minutes a day which, besides providing stronger effects on calming, concentration and empathy, have shown in clinical studies to strengthen a broad assortment of personal and interpersonal abilities.  These include:  higher levels of personal insight, better attunement to others, more response flexibility (i.e. providing a pause between impulse and action, allowing you to be more thoughtful on how to respond to stimulus), better fear modulation and more compassion. 

 

Is meditation religious?

Some have concerns that meditation is a Buddhist religious practice and worry that it conflicts with their existing faith tradition or (you know who you are!) triggers an allergic reaction to anything remotely “religious.”  But don’t worry; while these practices originate from eastern spiritual practices, there is nothing inherently religious in meditation as generally practiced in this country.  Western teachers have largely separated out the psychological benefits of meditation from the religious rituals and meaning of the east.  The Washington Post has an interesting article on the subject, here.

If you are ready to step into a larger daily commitment to mediation, here are a few things to consider:

Make it a habit

Follow the advice for developing any new habit — start small with just a few minutes per day and add some time each week.  Schedule a set time each day.   Put it in your calendar and commit to it.   Get social support of friends or family members.  Find a friend interested in learning at the same time.  Check out my post on the best ways to develop new habits, here

Don’t worry about form.

You don’t need to be sitting cross-legged on a beach or in a park to meditate.  What matters is that you are comfortable with your back erect (but not rigid) and the rest of you relaxed.  Chairs are fine.  You can even meditate standing or lying down if that is what your body needs (though keep in mind that sleeping doesn't count as meditatingJ).  My wife has trouble sitting still; she meditates best walking around the block.  It’s not about how you look, but about your ability to focus that matters.  There is no right and wrong. 

Befriend the discursive mind

Our minds wander.  We’ve trained them for our whole lives with cell phones, endless internet links and relentless multitasking.  Don’t make your wandering mind into an enemy.  Arguing with your mind or beating yourself up for not staying focused pulls you further away from the purpose of mediation, the “being” not doing. 

Even with a daily practice over three years, my mind still wanders every time I sit. It loves to try to convert my meditation time into problem-solving time or worrying time or planning time.  When I notice I’m thinking rather than meditating, I say a quick thank you to my powerful mind:  “Thank you for all you do.  You are awesome and have helped me get so many things in my life.  I promise we’ll do some more planning/worrying/problem-solving AFTER this meditation. But for the next few minutes, I’m focusing on my breath.” 

Use guided meditations

Guided meditations can help you focus, especially when you are new to meditation or significantly increasing the amount of your meditation time.  Having the vocal check-in of the recordings helps remind me that I’m meditating;  not problem-solving, not planning, not reminiscing, meditating.  And many guided meditations remind you to bring your focus back in a kind way.  I have purchased and used guided meditations from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh and others.  Any guided meditations that refer to mindfulness meditation and/or insight meditation should work. 

As you get stronger and more focused, you can do some meditation without the guide.  For me, even after 3 years of regular practice, I still use guided meditations over half the time.  Experiment with what works for you and do it. 

 

Eric Karpinski

The Happiness Coach

P.S.  Don't miss my FREE Webinar on finding more happiness and more productivity at work — this Tuesday April 10 at 7pm PST.  To find out more and sign up, go to http://erickarpinski.com/

Mindfulness: A Proven Tool for Increasing Happiness and Decreasing Stress

One of the most powerful and scientifically proven tools for increasing happiness is to be more mindful.  This simply means paying attention to what’s happening in the moment. 

As the scientific understanding of the benefits of mindfulness has grown, it’s appearing in more and more places.  Just yesterday the Wall Street Journal 

had an article on how mindfulness practice is being taught at the country’s business schools (see article here)

Benefits of mindfulness

Mindfulness and it’s more formal practice of meditation have been extensively studied by scientists for decades with some very impressive results not only in increasing positive emotions, but also in decreasing stress and relieving chronic disease. 

Studies have shown that regular mindfulness makes people happier, more engaged, and more resilient and it promotes feelings of ‘having enough.’  In brain scans, mindfulness has been shown to consistently activate the part of your brain that is responsible for happiness (the left pre-frontal cortex, for those of you techies out there).

Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in the treatment of pain, stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and addiction.  Mindfulness even improves immune function.

Mindfulness Defined

Jon Kabat-Zinn was the first to bring mindfulness to medical treatment in the west.  He describes mindfulness as ‘paying attention in a particular way:  on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.’  This simply means to be open to what’s happening now, rather than being lost in thought.

For example eating mindfully means noticing the flavors and the textures of the food you are eating.  Mindfully dishwashing = feel the soap on your hands, the warm water.  And mindful driving = feel of the steering wheel in your hands, noticing how your feet know just how much pressure to put onto the gas pedal to pull into that opening.     

Mindfulness in Action

Remembering to be mindful is difficult because we are always so busy doing things and our minds are typically going a mile a minute planning, worrying, etc.  Formal meditation practice is the best way to train the mind to be more mindful. 

Shawn Achor, in his corporate trainings, teach Fortune 500 employees and managers to take their hands off the keyboard for 2 minutes a day and focus on one singular calming action — typically to watch and feel the breath go in and out.  Here are some typical instructions:

When you start this practice, you’ll notice that your mind will wander.  Each time you become aware of the wandering; simply bring your attention back to the breath.  It may wander 10 or 20 times in the two minutes.  Know that the practice is NOT about being perfectly focused for the duration; instead, the practice IS the noticing and the bringing it back.  “Oh, there my mind went again, where do I feel the breath now?”  It is in this returning to the breath that the learning and training happens.    . 

If you are interested in tapping into the benefits of mindfulness I recommend that you commit to this simple exercise for 21 days.  Set a calendar reminder to do this every day. 

As this becomes a habit, you will find that your ability to concentrate increases and the meditation will often be coupled with feelings of calm and contentment.  You are likely to notice that your self-awareness and empathy increase as well.  I highly recommend that you give this simple two minute exercise a try over the next few weeks.  And see what happens.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
 
 
P.S.  Don't miss my FREE Webinar on finding more happiness and more productivity at work — this Tuesday April 10 at 7pm PST.  To find out more and sign up, go to http://erickarpinski.com/

The BEST Tools for Managing Your Negative Emotions

Learning to appropriately manage your anger, frustration, sadness and fear is a huge part of being happy.  Over the last couple months I’ve been sharing some of the best tools from the science of happiness (and from traditional psychology) for managing negative emotions.

This week, I’m going to do a top-level review.  Click on any of the titles to be taken to full post.

Negative Emotions, A Key To Happiness

Some people find it interesting that I spend significant time in my workshops and talks discussing negative emotions:  “You’re supposed to be the Happiness Coach, right?”

But effectively managing negativity is a central strategy for becoming happier.  And it’s not about ignoring the bad stuff or covering over it….  Click here for more.

Learning to Be Sad Can Increase Your Happiness

A key component of being happy is learning how to manage our negative emotions: sadness, fear, anger, worry, guilt, grief, frustration, and all those other emotions that make us feel icky.  And let’s be clear; 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.”

We all know that if you are going to live and love in this world, you are going to feel negative emotions.  You have to give yourself permission to be human and not push away all these experiences, many of which will teach you valuable things and allow you to grow and learn…  Click here for more.

“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”).  Necessary negativity starts with the facts and helps us face the truth, and once fully experienced allows us move forward with our lives.  For example, it is natural to mourn the loss of someone dear to you, to feel guilt when you do something you know is wrong, to be angry when you see an injustice done or disappointed when something doesn’t go your way.

Gratuitous negativity on the other hand takes the facts and distorts them through unfair self-judgments and blame, endless ‘what ifs’ and over-the-top worrying.  This hyperactive negativity is simply not necessary.  Reducing gratuitous negativity is a great place to start on any path to more happiness.

Understanding which type of negativity we feel determines which tools and processes to use to help us get back to a neutral or positive emotional state.  To learn more about how to differentiate the good from the bad, go here.

Act the Way You Want to Feel

One of the simplest ways to reduce gratuitous negative emotions is simply to act the way you want to feel.

Did you know that an artificially induced smile (biting a pencil lengthwise without touching it with your lips) can make you happier?  Or that botox treatment, which paralyzes frowning muscles, makes it harder to feel angry or sad?

Most of us believe that our actions follow from how we feel, but in fact we often feel because of the way we act.   And this provides one of the simplest and most powerful tools for changing how we feel… To read more, click here.

Distract Yourself from Endless Rumination

We’ve all experienced times when we beat ourselves up with unfair criticism and endless cycles of doom-and-gloom thinking.  This is rumination.  It’s your brain on a hamster wheel – cycling round and round and getting nowhere.  Studies show that when we are sad or angry or anxious, our brain selectively calls to mind negative thoughts which further intensify the negative emotion.

Because of this negativity bias, it is nearly impossible to think yourself out of these cycles.  What is needed is a healthy distraction.  Go HERE to read more about healthy and engaging ways to get yourself out of this rut and move on to greener pastures.

Taking on the Voices in Your Head

Let’s be real here.  We ALL hear voices in our head. They tell us all kinds of things – that we should try harder, how we can be “safe” and sometimes, if we’re lucky, they tell us we did a great job.  But often these voices trigger a negative spiral, taking one minor thing and fabricating an entire story that makes us feel bad about ourselves.

To learn some of the scientifically proven tactics for quieting these voices (or at least minimizing their impact!), check out the full blog post here.

Choosing your Board of Directors

As you practice listening to those voices in your head, you’ll start to notice some consistent messages or themes.  One powerful way to manage those repeated messages from your mind is to externalize and personify those voices.  Think about them as your Board of Directors – helping you guide your life.

Once you’ve got them defined, then you’ve got real power to decide what advice to take and what to ignore.  AND you can actively recruit other characters onto your Board to balance those more troublesome voices.

(Interestingly, I received more positive comments on this post than on any other in the six months I’ve been putting together this weekly missive.  To find out what has everyone so engaged, read the full post here.)

Finding the Right Counter-Fact

Whenever something happens, you create an alternative scenario, or counter-fact,  that your brain makes up to make sense of what happened.

Imagine you have to stay late at work.  You can compare yourself to being at home with your family or out with your friends and you’ll rail against the unfortunate situation you are in.

But if you compare yourself to other people who have to work late every day or to people who don’t have a job in this crappy economy, you can see yourself as the lucky one and it will help you feel better in the short term.

What’s important here is that these counter-facts are completely made up.   They are pure fiction and you can CHOOSE what situation you want to compare to.  This gives YOU the power to guide your feelings.  To read more about this, check out the full blog post, here.

Learn to fail or fail to learn

“Failure is an inescapable part of life and a critically important part of any successful life.  We learn to walk by falling, to talk by babbling, to shoot a basket by missing, and to color the inside of a square by scribbling outside the box.  Those who intensely fear failing end up falling short of their potential.  We either learn to fail or we fail to learn.”  – Tal Ben Shahar, The Pursuit of Perfect

Learning to accept failures can be difficult.  Tap into several tools for learning this important skill here.

Defusing Negativity Landmines

Do you arrive at work every day angry from your commute?  Do you end up yelling in frustration every morning, getting your kids out the door?  Does a toxic coworker consistently bring down your mood?

Many of us have these kinds of negativity landmines in our life:  events, situations or people that consistently and predictably affect us in a negative way.  The good news is that once you recognize the pattern and take a conscious approach to it, you can often make changes that significantly reduce their chance of destroying your hour, day or week.  Click HERE to learn some great tools for defusing these landmines.

Embracing Necessary Negativity

Much of the above is concerned with reducing gratuitous negativity.  But fully embracing necessary negativity is also an important part of being truly happy.  After two months of posts on negativity, it’s time to take a break and talk about some pro-happiness tools for a while.  We’ll circle back to this topic in a few weeks.

Eric Karpinski

The Happiness Coach

P.S.  To join the Happiness Infusion email  list, sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page.

P.P.S.  I love it when people share these posts on their favorite social media sites.  If you want to share this post, click on any of the links below:

Defusing Negativity Landmines

Do you arrive at work every day angry from your commute?  Do you end up yelling in frustration every morning, getting your kids out the door?  Does a toxic coworker consistently bring down your mood? 

Many of us have these kinds of negativity landmines in our life:  events, situations or people that consistently and predictably affect us in a negative way.  The good news is that once you recognize the pattern and take a conscious approach to it, you can often make changes that significantly reduce their chance of destroying your hour, day or week.  Here are some tips:

Identify your landmines

The most important thing you can do is identify those situations that repeatedly take a toll on your emotional state.  Take a few minutes to reflect on your daily routines – is there a part of your day you dread?  Something you wish you could avoid all together? 

Review the past couple weeks for data, and keep a mindful eye on your emotions for the next few days.  Are there times in your day when you consistently get sad, angry, embarrassed, scared or stressed?   Pay attention and see what’s causing it.  Just identifying those landmines is the first and, for many of us, most important step.

Get in a neutral space

Scientific studies show that we do our most accurate self-assessments and come up with the best solutions, in a neutral or positive state.  So before you start developing a plan to defuse these landmines, check in with where you are emotionally.  If you are still in the midst of frustration, take a breather, or find a healthy distraction otherwise, your “solution” may cause more damage than the original landmine!  Come back to the issue and start brainstorming ideas when you don’t have those skewed negativity lenses on. 

Change something

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

          – Anonymous (sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin).

We often lock ourselves into our misery unnecessarily.  While you can spend endless hours dreaming of telecommuting or getting your boss fired or not having to do those TPS reports, there are things you can do right now to lessen the impact.  Barbara Fredrickson, in her book Positivity, shares a lot of ideas on how to reduce the negative effects of these landmines.  Here are some ideas to get those creative juices flowing.

Avoid it: Do you notice you get angry, frustrated or depressed when watching the news, certain movies or playing video games?  Is the education or entertainment benefit worth the cost of feeling so crappy?  Read more about the science around violent media here.

Do you end up running into the same negative coworker at the same time each day?  Perhaps there is a different way to walk to your office?  Maybe you can park somewhere different?  Go to lunch at a different time?  Figure out if there’s a way to just walk around the emotional landmine.

Do more preparationMy wife and I used to regularly leave the house frustrated and angry because the kids took so long to get ready for school.  After the 50th repetition of ‘Put on your shoes’ at ever increasing volumes, everyone in the house was tense and crabby.  This concept is masterfully expressed in this youtube video So we implemented a checklist before bed which had the kids lay out their clothes and make their lunches the night before.   While this hasn’t eliminated all morning frustration, it’s amazing what a difference these extra preparation steps made for us. 

Change the Meaning: My commute to work used to be a stress-fest.  I’d think through all the things I had to do that day, over and over.  When I realized how useless this incessant chatter was, I decided to change the purpose of my commute.  Rather than planning, it became a time to learn. I started listening to audiobooks on things I found interesting – lots of positive psychology stuff at the time.  (BTW, check out booksfree.com which is essentially Netflix for audiobooks for a less expensive way to upload get access to audiobooks).  Suddenly I was looking forward to my commute instead of dreading it. 

Some friends of mine use their commute as a time to practice mindfulness or gratitude. Still others find a friend to drive with or schedule calls with distant friends and turn their commute into social and connection time. 

Think about how you can change the meaning of your landmine situation:   Is that torturous, political staff meeting a chance to practice loving-kindness or empathetic listening? Can folding endless piles of laundry be a chance to explore new music?  Get creative and have fun with it.

And if your landmine surrounds specific people, head back into the archives from the holidays here.

Potential emotional landmines litter your daily landscape, but you can minimize their effect by trying these techniques.  So identify and defuse those landmines before they destroy the positive mind-space you’re working hard to create!

 

 

Eric Karpinski

The Happiness Coach

P.S.  To join the Happiness Infusion email  list, sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page.

P.P.S.  I love it when people share these posts on their favorite social media sites.  If you want to share this post, click on any of the links below:

Learn to fail or fail to learn

Failing.  Making mistakes.  Falling down.  Messing up. These words fill many of us with fear and dread, with embarrassment and shame.  We think we’re supposed to set goals and achieve them one after the other.   But that’s not the way life works. 

“Failure is an inescapable part of life and a critically important part of any successful life.  We learn to walk by falling, to talk by babbling, to shoot a basket by missing, and to color the inside of a square by scribbling outside the box.  Those who intensely fear failing end up falling short of their potential.  We either learn to fail or we fail to learn.”  – Tal Ben Shahar, The Pursuit of Perfect

Most of us have heard by now about famous “successes” that had high profile failures.  Michael Jordan was cut from his high school’s basketball team.  The Beatles were rejected for a recording contract because “guitar bands are on their way out.” Walt Disney got fired from a newspaper job for not being creative enough.  But somehow, knowing we’re in great company doesn’t make the process of failing any easier.    

Like everyone, I have struggled with failing to meet my own expectations. 

When I left the comfort of a successful biotech career to become a happiness coach, I worked my tail off with workshops and marketing.  Some of them were mildly successful but many were total failures.  The voices in my head  panicked and began screaming to stop this crazy experiment, to go back to the safety of a biotech job.  I began to talk myself out of workshops, and then my entire new career path.

This is the danger point with failure: that a few setbacks make you question the entire enterprise and can stop all forward progress.  But there are ways to change this perspective, to keep a failure from being debilitating.  Here are several tools:

View failure as feedback.

When something doesn’t go according to plan, take the time to digest what happened, to figure out what derailed your efforts.  See it as a challenge and an opportunity to learn more and grow.  Get curious about how and why the failure happened and what you can do better.  This can energize you to try again in a smarter way.   

Circle back to your original goals: are they still appropriate?  Have you learned something that might create a better opportunity?   Sometimes you can find possibility halfway through a project – at “failure” even – that wasn’t visible when you started. 

If we can get ourselves to accept that failure is not an unfortunate occurrence, but is actually required to learn, we can be better able to deal with it when it happens.

Set appropriate expectations

Set ambitious but attainable goals and expect to achieve many of them in your life.  But also expect detours and challenges that will take time to get through and failures that may require you to rework your plans and assumptions.  Imagine your path to success not as a direct line from here to your goal, but as a winding path, always moving towards your goal, but with deviations and explorations that increase your learning.

Fail early and fail often

While it seems counterproductive, psychologists recommend that you fail early and often. 

“We can only learn to deal with failure by actually experiencing failure, by living through it.  The earlier we face difficulties and drawbacks, the better prepared we are to deal with the inevitable obstacles along our path.”  – Tal Ben Shahar, the Pursuit of Perfect

So much better to start a project, take the first steps and see what happens.  Then adapt.  Trying to foresee every eventuality to always get it right the first time is a recipe for stagnation and inaction. 

Take on those voices in your head

If your self-talk is full of fear of failing or jumps on you for any small mistake, use some of the other tools we’ve talked about in previous posts:  Dispute the voices in your head and actively choose your board of directors .  Use the facts you’ve learned in this post to argue against their fear-based rationale.  And get moving towards your goals!

“If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” – Thomas Edison

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – John F. Kennedy

 

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

 

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Do You Feel Lucky? Finding the Right Counter-Fact

Imagine this scenario:  You walk into a bank where there are 50 other people.  A robber walks in and fires his weapon once.  You are shot in the right arm.

If you were honestly describing this event to your friends and coworkers the next day, do you describe it as lucky or unlucky?   Stop reading for a minute – what evidence would you use to come to that decision?

…Shawn Achor, bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage, uses this exercise in corporate trainings all over the world.  He found that 70% of respondents say they were unlucky.  Their responses?

“I could have walked into any bank, at any time.  This kind of thing almost never happens.  How unlucky is it that I happened to be there?  AND that I was shot?!”

“There’s a bullet in my arm; that’s objectively unfortunate.”

“In entered the bank perfectly healthy and I left in an ambulance.  I don’t know about you, but that’s not my idea of a good time.”

On the other hand, the remaining 30% of respondents claim that they were very lucky indeed with responses like:

“I could have been shot somewhere far worse than my arm.  I could have died.  I feel incredibly fortunate.”

“It’s amazing that no one else got hurt.  There were lots of other people in the bank, including children.  It’s unbelievably lucky that everybody lived to tell the tale. “

No matter which side you took, you invented a counter-fact, an alternative scenario that your brain made up to help make sense of what really happened.

The “unlucky” group compared the real scenario to not being shot at all.  In that case, getting shot really does seem terrible.  The “lucky” group’s counter-fact was something much worse — getting shot in the head or someone dying.

What’s important here is that these counter-facts are completely made up.   They are pure fiction; neither of those scenarios actually happened.  Realizing this gives YOU the power to make up whatever counter-fact you want.  If the first counter-fact induces fear, loss or disappointment, open up your mind to an alternative scenario, one that makes you feel better.

This past Monday,  I was giving a Science of Happiness talk to a nonprofit organization at lunchtime.  Like with most groups, many appeared engaged and excited, and a few looked really skeptical or, even worse, bored.

My first thought was, “Why isn’t everyone seeing the amazing power of this science?  I need to revamp this presentation so it can be more convincing.”

The disappointment and self-critique I felt came from my counter-fact: “Everyone should get this stuff and it’s my job to be sure they do.”   What a stressful perfectionist thing to think!

So I tried this counter-fact instead: “What if I didn’t come at all?  The people who are really engaged wouldn’t learn any of this.  If even half of the people that are listening actually make the small changes I suggest, I may have significantly increased the happiness of 10 people.  How awesome is that!?!?”    Suddenly, I felt motivated and excited and proud.  .

Another example that Shawn uses in his Happiness Advantage training DVD is this: Imagine you have to stay late at work.  If you compare yourself to being at home with your family or out with your friends, you’ll believe you’re in a bad situation and consider yourself unfortunate.

But if you compare yourself to other people who have to work late every day or to people who don’t have a job in this crappy economy, you can see yourself as the lucky one and it will help you feel better in the short term.

But more importantly, when your brain realizes there are multiple ways to view something, it takes energy away from the negative stress part of your brain and activates the part of your brain that can strategize.  This jumpstarts your cognitive skills and creativity so you can get your work done more efficiently and quickly get home to your family.

So, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, think about being lucky.  Notice the counter-facts you choose this week: what are you comparing your situation to?  What would a “lucky” person compare their situation to?  Which works better for you?

 

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

Choosing your Board of Directors

As you practice listening to those voices in your head (Think we’re talking about visiting Crazy Town?  We’re not; read about how we all have voices in our head here. link), you’ll start to notice some consistent messages or themes.  One powerful way to manage those repeated messages from your mind is to externalize and personify those voices.  Think about them as your Board of Directors – helping you guide your life.

Give them a name and personality. 

Sometimes you might know the exact source of that voice – it could be Critical Mom or Judgmental Neighbor.  Or it could be a stereotypical caricature.  But pay attention: who is trying to influence your decisions?  Give them names and try to understand their biases.  Let me introduce you to two members of my Board of Directors:

  • Mr. MBA – Mr. MBA is a hard-driving perfectionist, the combination of the worst stereotypes of my Wharton MBA classmates.   “If you are going to do it, you have to do it right.”  “These opportunities don’t come along often, don’t mess this up.”  “If you can’t make a ton of money doing this, what’s the point?”  This is the voice that pushes me to constantly plan and revise and add more to every project I take on.  And it’s never enough.  When I let this Director take over the management of my life, there is no rest, no chance to recharge and no time for celebrating victories.
  • Everybody Loves Eric — This is the voice that is looking everywhere for affirmation of who I am and what I’m doing.  “That person in the second row doesn’t seem engaged. They must not like this talk.  Let me focus on them and see how I can get them to like it, too.”  “That was stupid thing to say!  No one is going to listen to you now!”  “What are my old work colleagues going to think of me leaving a well-paying career for this struggle?”  “I bet this guy thinks I’m just trying to sell him something.”  When I let Everybody Loves Eric drive the bus, I live in constant fear of being discovered as a fraud or needing to make everyone like me.  I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking through all possible reactions to my activities or my talks and end up significantly diluting my message.

Listen to your board of directors, but don’t take ALL their advice

So think about these characters as your Board of Directors.  Each is trying to help you in their way. They want you to be safe, successful or not get embarrassed.  Give them credit for the help they are providing and honor their intentions.  But remember that you are the CEO of your life.  Your Board is there to give advice, NOT to make all the decisions.

When I let these guys drive the bus, there is a constant buzz of ‘it’s not enough’ and I find myself sitting down to do work at every spare minute or thinking through possible situations ad nauseam.   That’s not what I went into my own business for.

So when I notice Mr. MBA or Everybody Loves Eric start to get excited and tell me all the things I need to do, I thank them for the great advice.  Their past ideas have helped me be very successful and connected in my life and career.  But then I consider my other needs and desires and make a conscious decision about what I want to do.

Add desired voices to your Board of Directors.  

If your team is full of voices that create stress and negativity, do what any healthy organization does and recruit some new members.

I recently brought on my friend, 80:20.  He’s constantly reminding me (and the rest of the team) that 20% of the work will get 80% of the benefit.   And that it’s infinitely better to push an imperfect project out into the world than work to optimize every detail and possibly give up because it’s not good enough yet.  No one benefits in that scenario.

Of course Mr. MBA’s got a strong voice from the long-tenured role he’s played in my head, so I have to actively encourage 80:20 to step up.  And each time I do, he gets a little more confidence.

Find new Directors to bring onto your team that push you in the direction you want to go.  And encourage their input whenever you can.

It’s your job to be the CEO of your life.  Allow your Board to have their say and to glean what you can from their advice.  But the buck stops with you, not with those voices.  You get to decide.  So slow down and listen to all the input.  Then make a conscious decision before jumping into action.  This simple idea can take you a long way towards living the life you want.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

 

P.S.  To join the Happiness Infusion email  list, sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page.

 

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