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Distress, Stress “Management” and ReThinking Stress

Last week I shared some of the wonderful science behind ‘eustress’ or the ‘good’ stress.  This is the stress that helps you get moving towards your goals and marshal the right resources to get something done.  As this stress increases, your performance increases — at least up to a point.


You know what it is like when your stress is no longer helpful, like when you realize you won’t have the time to get all the work done, or you don’t have the skill to take a project to completion.  When that happens, your performance decreases — you might feel paralyzed or lose the perspective necessary for good decisions — which causes more stress, which leads to a further reduction in your ability to get things done.  We call this downward spiral distress.  

Preventing and or ‘managing’ distress has become a billion dollar industry. 

Traditional Stress Management Programs

But traditional stress management programs suffer from two fundamentally flawed assumptions.

  1. They assume that the effects of stress are only negative, that stress can only lead to deterioration in performance.
  2. They assume the only way that we can “fix” this problem is to reduce, manage or fight against the stress we feel in order to maximize how much stress we can handle before crashing into distress.

The problem is that stress itself is a fight or flight response to perceived threats.  Stress “management” programs remind us how bad stress is for us so when the inevitable stressful incident occurs, we get stressed about feeling stressed.   We think, “I’m not supposed to be feeling this” or “This is bad for me,” which multiplies the negative effects.

These traditional programs also set up stress as something to fight against.  They teach us to resist or try to control our response to the stress we feel.  This reinforces the fight or flight response, and effectively opens another front in our war on stress.  These traditional trainings miss the fact that stress is not an enemy to be avoided or defeated, but can be a useful ally in reaching our goals.

ReThink Stress

By changing your mindset about stress you can significantly change your own stress response curve.  By viewing stress as something that can be helpful to you, you can change how the stress affects you.  As was demonstrated in the Yale studies, this simple change can improve your performance, health and well-being.

This Week’s Challenge

Check in with yourself right now.  Is something stressing you?  Get curious about that stress.  What are you saying to yourself about it?  How does it make you feel?  Does it drive you to focus more on the tasks at hand or pull away?  Where do you notice that stress in your body?  Over this week, check in whenever you notice you are feeling stressed and ask yourself these questions.  No need to judge it or do anything about it at this point, just observe and note what’s happening.

Over the next several posts, I’ll be sharing the three steps of the ReThink Stress program which will help you change your mindset about stress.  So stay tuned.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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Eustress – the ‘Good Stress’

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am developing a cool new stress-related product called ReThink Stress that is based on powerful research from Yale which is being published this month in a top psychology journal.  I’ve received permission from the authors of this study to preview some of the most interesting parts of the training with you, dear readers.

It’s odd for many of us to realize that our stress response evolved to help us.  When a saber toothed tiger attacked in prehistoric times, neurochemicals dropped into our body to prepare us to either fight off the tiger or to run away.  This increased our chances for survival and our ability to pass on our genes to the next generation.

Source: The American Stress Institute (ASI) website:

And this positive aspect of stress is still valuable to us today, even if you don’t happen to work with saber tooth tigers.  Moderate levels of stress get you moving toward your goals and help you marshal the resources to get something done.  As stress increases, your performance continues to increase, at least up to a point.  We see this in top athletes preparing for competition, neurosurgeons going into the operating room and performers going on stage.  Their stress primes them to be their best.   We call this eustress.

Interestingly, this response is non-specific.  Your body and most parts of your brain can’t tell the difference between lethal threats such as a saber-toothed tiger that may attack and non-lethal threats such as a long list of urgent tasks, an upset boss or a red down-arrow on a stock ticker.

So what is the stress response actually designed to do?  Is it an outdated system that no longer has much use to us?  The research tells us no, that in fact  the same benefits that helped us in prehistoric times can be crucial to thriving in the midst of the chaos of your modern life.

The Research into the Benefits of Stress

We hear a lot about how stress can decrease your cognitive performance.  But there is equally valid scientific research that the opposite is true as well.  For example, in a particularly “X-Games” study, scientists found that subjects in the midst of a bungee jump can process information much faster than a non-free falling control group.

Another cruel-sounding study found that subjects’ memory and performance on standard cognitive tests actually increase when they put their hands into ice water – a rather stressful activity.

Other studies show benefits to your immune system when under stress.  When a group of patients was purposely stressed before going into knee surgery, they recovered at twice the rate of a control group not primed with stress.

This makes sense from an historical perspective.  If you get attacked by a saber toothed tiger, that’s the time you want your immune system working at its optimal level. If you get hit by the tiger, you want your immune system to respond very quickly. This is how vaccines work too.  They stress your body with an overload of antigens to create an active immune response.

It’s also how we get stronger.  Weight lifting stresses our muscles to the point where we break some muscle fibers.  As they heal, they rebuild stronger than they were before.

And some of our most stressful life events, such as battling cancer, being in an accident or going to war, can cause huge leaps in personal growth.  While post-traumatic stress is a real phenomenon, there is huge body of research showing many people come through these challenges having grown not despite of the trauma but because of it.  They feel much more connected with family, friends and society at large.  They find increased levels of resilience and a greater appreciation for life.  Scientists call this phenomenon post-traumatic growth.

The research is clear.  Stress CAN help us be healthier, more productive and grow from traumatic events IF we have the right mindset .  Next post, I’ll talk more about when stress goes haywire and why traditional ‘stress management’ programs aren’t as effective as we’d hope they would be.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
P.S. To receive these posts directly into your inbox each week, simply sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page. You’ll also receive access to my most recent free webinar on the science of happiness (positive psychology).
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Changing Your Mindset

Last post I summarized the impressive research on how your mindset can have a significant effect on both your physical and mental responses to a stimulus.  This week we’ll talk about how to change your mindset.

Carol Dweck, a top psychologist from Stanford and author of Mindset: the New Psychology of Success is one of the world’s experts on mindset.   Her work focuses on the mindset around learning, intelligence, achievement and success.

Fixed Mindset

In Dweck’s work, she describes two ways of looking at the world.  One is that abilities and talents such as intelligence, creativity, quantitative analysis or athletic ability are fixed, meaning you believe that people are either born a genius, a quant jock, a top athlete or they aren’t.  This is called the fixed mindset.

If you have a fixed mindset; you believe things should come naturally to people who have talent, that if something requires effort, you clearly aren’t good at it.  Challenges and obstacles are threatening because they directly affect your sense of ability and your sense of self — if a test is hard, you must not “be smart.” If you don’t pick up a new sport immediately, it’s because you are “not athletic.”  This makes it very difficult to try new things and take risks, because you may fail.  And failure destroys your self-perception, if you’re a fixed-mindset person.  But people can’t learn if they don’t take risks and try new things, so in a fixed mindset learning and growth become severely limited.

Growth Mindset

The other view believes that these same talents and attributes — intelligence, creativity and so on — can be cultivated through effort and instruction, that throughout your life you can get smarter and more talented as you work on the attribute and learn from experience. This is called a growth mindset.

In this mindset, your brain is a muscle which gets stronger with use.  Every time you learn something new, your brain forms new connections and you increase your intellectual skills.  If you have a growth mindset, you get excited about taking on challenges as a way to learn and grow.  This mindset encourages persistence and resilience when hitting the inevitable obstacles on the way towards your goals.

I hear your mental wheels turning right now.  Of course you have a growth mindset. Of course you can get better at things.  But take a deeper look.  Don’t you also have whole areas that you dismiss because, “I have no artistic ability.”  Or “I’m not good at math.”   Or “I’m just not athletic.”  Most of us are somewhere in the middle, but having a fixed mindset in any areas will limit how much you can grow and what risks you are willing to take.

The Research

The growth vs. fixed mindset was first described from research on adolescents and college students.  Students with a growth mindset were motivated to learn and exert effort, and outperformed those with a fixed mindset.  And in studies that trained students in the growth mindset, participants showed significant increases in effort and engagement.  It also improved test scores, provided for better grades, improved resilience in the face of challenges and increased life satisfaction.

The research has since been expanded into the business world.  When managers were taught a growth mindset, they increased their skills, were more likely to admit mistakes and more likely to overcome them.   They became more willing and able coaches and were more likely to notice performance improvements in their employees. They were also more likely to seek out constructive feedback from subordinates.  Negotiators taught a growth mindset were more able to push past obstacles and reach an agreement that benefitted both sides.   (Look past the graphic below for how to change your mindset.)

Image: Nigel Holmes / Graph Content: Carol Dweck

Changing from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset

(Adapted from Carol Dweck’s website)

Step 1 Learn to hear your fixed mindset voice.

As I talked about in this post (Taking on the voices in your head), we all have voices in our heads telling us what to do or trying to keep us safe.  When you can start hearing these voices as just that — voices, rather than you —  you can start to get some control of your actions and responses.  Look at Step 3 for some examples.

Step 2 Recognize that you have a choice.

How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. You can interpret them in a fixed mindset as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them in a growth mindset as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you.

As you face challenges, setbacks and criticisms, listen to the fixed mindset voice and [Step 3] talk back to the voices with a growth mindset voice.

If you hear a FIXED MINDSET comment: Argue with a GROWTH MINDSET response:
“Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have the talent.” “I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to with time and effort.”
“What if you fail—you’ll be a failure” “All successful people had failures along the way.”  (For more see this post ‘Learn to fail or fail to learn’)
“If you don’t try, you can protect yourself and keep your dignity.” “If I don’t try, I automatically fail. Where’s the dignity in that?”
“This would have been a snap if you really had talent.” “That is so wrong. Basketball wasn’t easy for Michael Jordan and science wasn’t easy for Thomas Edison. They had a passion and put in tons of effort.”
“It’s not my fault. It was something or someone else’s fault.” “If I don’t take responsibility, I can’t fix it. Let me listen—however painful it is– and learn whatever I can.”

Step 4. Take growth mindset action.

Giving voice to the growth mindset thinking will help you decide the best way forward.  Then you have the choice to take on the challenge, to learn from your setbacks and try again and to hear the criticism as a way to constructively improve on your work.

With practice you’ll hear this fixed-mindset voice more often and be ready with a growth-mindset response.  Over time, you’ll gain more and more choice and make it work for you.

So over the next week, slow down so you can notice what the voices are saying to you. If they are limiting you, try out another approach.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
P.S. To receive these posts directly into your inbox each week, simply sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page. You’ll also receive access to my most recent free webinar on the science of happiness (positive psychology).
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:

The Power of Mindset

Want to know something mind-blowing?  Your mind has incredible power to change not just your thinking, but also your actual physical state.  Research has shown that simply changing your mindset about a situation can have significant effects on objective, measurable outcomes such as levels of hormone secretion, reduced pain, improved hearing, decreases in body fat percentage and many more.  So hold onto your disbelief  — I can see the eye-rolling from here — as I talk you through some of the more impressive studies  on the power of mindset.

What is mindset?

At any given moment, the amount of potential information to take in is unwieldy.  Therefore we need a simplifying system, a lens or frame through which to view and make sense of the world.

This lens is what we call a mindset, and it consists of the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation.  And those ideas and attitudes predetermine a person’s interpretations of — and responses to — situations.  When you let your mindset express itself without awareness, you lose your ability to choose your behavior.

The Mindset Research

Here are a few examples of how mindset affected objective, measurable changes:

The placebo effect.  Research has shown that inactive pills (the placebo) show benefits in 60-90% of diseases.  This includes both diseases with subjective endpoints like anxiety or depression, and diseases with easily measurable physical changes like osteoarthritis and cancer; that means that people who take sugar pills show measurable tumor shrinkage (crazy, right?)  Research shows that placebos trigger complex neurobiological phenomena including the activation of distinct brain areas as well as peripheral physiology and the immune system.   Alia Crum, a top mindset researcher at Columbia, calls the placebo effect, “an incredible and consistent demonstration of the power of mindset to recruit healing properties in the body, even without active drug.“

Sham surgeries.  And this isn’t only in the drug realm, but in surgery too.  In one study, researchers enrolled patients who were scheduled for reconstructive knee surgery.  They went through all the steps of the surgery in the operating room including putting the patients under anesthesia and cutting open their knees.  But instead of doing the surgery, they simply waited the time the surgery normally takes then sutured them back up and monitored the results.  As compared to prior to the surgery, these “sham-procedure” patients felt less pain, used less morphine, had more mobility, could climb more stairs and had reductions in the objective amounts of swelling.  All this simply because they thought they’d had full surgery.

Fake poison ivy.  Thirteen people, who were extremely allergic to poison ivy, were each touched on one arm with a harmless leaf but were told it was poison ivy and touched on the other arm with poison ivy and told it was harmless. All 13 broke out in rash where the harmless leaf contacted their skin. Only two reacted to the poison leaves.

Making you younger.  In the “counter-clockwise study,” Ellen Langer from Harvard University had a group of elderly men attend a week-long retreat where everything they saw was from 20 years earlier, including magazines, newspapers, television, and music.  They were fed popular food from that era and instructed only to discuss personal and world events from that time 20 years prior.  In other words, the context around them was arranged to put them into the mindset that they were young again.  After just one week living in this environment, the participants got noticeably “younger” on many of the experimental measures.  Their hearing and their memory improved.  They scored higher on intelligence tests; they had greater joint flexibility, grip strength and manual dexterity.  There were improvements on height, weight, gait and posture.  Objective observers judged that photos of the subjects looked noticeably younger at the end of the study as compared to their photos at the beginning.

Changing mindset, changing weight.  A group of hotel room attendants were the subject of another well-known mindset study from Harvard.  While the hotel room attendants had jobs that were very active, most of them did not perceive their work as exercise.  They had the mindset that their work was simply their work.  The researchers trained one group that their work was good exercise and that they should receive the health benefits of all that activity.  And while they had no change in their diet or outside exercise regimen, after just four weeks, this ‘informed’ group showed significant, measurable reductions in weight, body fat percentage and blood pressure as compared to a group who didn’t get the training.  All from a simple shift in their mindset.

A more filling milkshake.  In another mindset study, this one at Yale, volunteers were recruited on the pretext that they were to taste milkshakes with different calorie content.  Each volunteer was hooked up to an IV to measure their physiological response to the shake.  They specifically looked at levels of a hunger stimulating hormone called Ghrelin.  Ghrelin levels drop when you eat a big meal sending a signal that says “Okay, brain, we can stop eating, we can stop searching for food, we can digest and metabolize the food we have now.”

The subjects were given two different shakes one week apart and were explicitly shown the labels on each.  The “Sensi-Shake” indicated it had just 140 calories, 0 grams of fat and no added sugar while the “Indulgence” shake indicated it contained 620 calories, 30g of fat and 56 grams of sugar.  With the “Sensi-Shake” the ghrelin levels didn’t drop much, while with the “Indulgence” shake the ghrelin levels dropped through the floor.

The catch was that both weeks they were given exactly the same shake.  The change in Ghrelin levels was due exclusively to their mindset about what they were drinking from the label.  The expectation of what the shake would do to their appetite significantly changed their hormonal response and thus their appetite.

Take Home Message

All of these studies suggest that the mindset you adopt in a given situation can produce changes that are objectively measurable.  Whether it’s placebo effects in drug trials, sham operations, fake poison ivy, food labels or simply being told that your work is exercise, your mindset matters to your health, your performance and you psychological growth.

In the next post you will learn how you can change your mindset, *without* being lied to in an experiment!

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
P.S. To receive these posts directly into your inbox each week, simply sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page. You’ll also receive access to my most recent free webinar on the science of happiness (positive psychology). 

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:

Yale Research: Stress Can Be Good for You, with the Right Mindset

A recent study conducted at Yale shows that if you change your mindset towards stress, it can make the stress you have in your life enhancing to your health, performance and psychological growth.   And this research was just written up in the Wall Street Journal.  (and if you don’t want to subscribe to the newspaper, you can see the text here)

I can hear the incredulity in your thoughts already.  “Stress can’t be good for me?  I’m constantly barraged by media messages about how stress can kill me and destroy my productivity.  Isn’t stress the cause of high blood pressure, heart attacks and insomnia?  This must be some fluke study like that cold fusion debacle all those years ago.”

But not only is this Yale study real (it will be published next month in The Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences, a top psychology journal), it is part of a large body of important but underrepresented research that shows stress can be good for you.

So how can stress be beneficial for some people and harmful to others? This study shows that it all comes down to how you view the stress in your life.

Study Details

In the study, 380 employees from a prominent investment bank were split into three groups.   One group watched a series of videos showing how stress can be enhancing, the second group watched a series of videos on how stress can be debilitating and the third was a control group who watched no videos.  As compared to the other two groups, the stress-is-enhancing group had a significant reduction in stress-related physical symptoms (such as headaches, backaches, fatigue) and a significant improvement in productivity, increasing from 1.9 to 2.6 on a four-point scale.

In a follow-up study, not yet published, the investigators trained 200 managers at the same investment bank on how to use their current stress to their advantage at work.  The effects of the second experiment showed further improvements in work effectiveness and health outcomes.

Online Training Product Coming

I first learned about this research a little over a year ago and had the chance to be part of an in-person training program over the summer.  I was so impressed with the data and the potential benefits of this research that I convinced the investigators to let me develop an online training product with them.  We’re deep in the development now, but if you are interested in learning more, you can go to our website:

It’s our mindset about stress that matters.  If we believe stress will have enhancing effects on us, it makes those expected effects more likely.  I’ll provide more of the key research in upcoming posts as well as highlight some of the tools you can start using to change your own mindset.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach


P.S. To receive these posts directly into your inbox each week, simply sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page. You’ll also receive access to my most recent free webinar on the science of happiness (positive psychology).


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:

The Five Pillars of Well-Being #4: Meaning

Martin Seligman, author of, Flourish and co-founder of positive psychology, defines the fourth pillar of well-being, meaning,  as ‘using your strengths and talents to belong and to serve something that is larger than yourself’.  What is “meaningful” can be very different between two people; it may mean volunteering for animal rights, raising a healthy child, building a lasting structure, or being there when someone you love needs help.

The weird thing about meaning, however, is that even though it is a central pillar of well-being, it can often come at a cost to your happiness. For example, studies comparing parents and non-parents show that having children greatly reduces happiness because of the self-sacrifice it requires (as anyone who has supervised math homework instead of watching Breaking Bad can attest…).  Having a career where you care about the outcome and want to make a difference can be stressful and frustrating when it doesn’t work the way you hope.  Volunteering takes away from leisure activities, and other fun and engaging uses of your time.

So why do we do it?  Many of you probably intuitively feel the benefits of finding and claiming a personal mission, which can give you a powerful sense of direction in your life and can bring meaning to much of what you do.    And the research has shown that having a life purpose increases your overall well-being and life satisfaction, enhances your resilience and self-esteem, and improves your mental and physical health.

How to do it

Some people are born knowing what they were meant to do, but what if that’s not you?  Here are several ways you can start tapping into what has meaning for you.

1)  Write a personal mission statement.  One of the most powerful ways to find meaning in your life is to actively define your personal mission or purpose.  One of my favorite exercises for this is to envision traveling into the future and having a conversation with yourself on your 80th birthday.  You get to ask ask your future-self anything you want.   Here are some good starter questions:  What is it you most remember about your life?  What were the most important things you did?  The most meaningful?  What were your greatest achievements?

When you finish the visit and come back to the present, write down as much of the conversation as you can remember.  Consolidate those ideas into a personal mission statement, that describes what you are here for.  And then take a look at your life right now.  Are these the things you are doing and prioritizing today?

2)  Journal about meaning.  If tackling a personal mission statement sounds too vast an undertaking, you can start with a much simpler journaling exercise.  You simply write about one meaningful moment you experience each day.  For 21 days, do this practice for a couple minutes and include as much detail as you can remember.   Review your entries after a couple weeks and find how your different “meaning moments” link together into themes.  If this one sounds of interest to you, you can read much more about this on my blog post, Happiness Habit #5:  “Dear Diary…”:  Journaling for Meaning .

3)  Find meaning in your stress.  We only feel stress when there is something we care about on the line.  So next time you notice you are stressed, check in with the reason behind that stress.   You might have to go a few levels deep.  For example:  if your stressor is unopened emails in your inbox, you might feel stress because you really want to get back to those clients, you want to get back to those clients so you can have a thriving business, you want to have a thriving business so you can support your family, so that you can have a good family life.  At some point your brain should find an event or reason which justifies the stress that your brain has just given you.

Your task is to find what is meaningful in YOUR life.  What matters is that you see yourself making a positive difference towards creating the world you want to live in.

My experience

Finding meaning in my life drove many of my decisions over the last 6 years.  For me, working with a coach helped me sort out my values and see that the high-prestige, high-money career I’d built wasn’t providing meaning in my life.

When I became a happiness coach, I thought this meaning would come of its own accord.  That by doing something that I saw as important, I’d automatically feel the goodness of it.   But that was not the case for me.  When I’m not consciously looking for that meaning, I simply get caught up in my never-ending to-do list.  It’s an “Okay, that’s done.  What’s next?” mentality.  Reflecting on the meaning of what I’m doing helps me stay grounded.  After a good run with work – an hour drafting a blog post, for example — I deliberately spend several minutes appreciating that I’m doing something to make the world a better place.  This exercise gives me a few minutes to slow down each day and connect my actions with why I’m doing the things I do.

Take home message

If you know what brings meaning to your life, go out and do it.  It’s a blessing.  And be sure to regularly check in with how your actions are furthering that mission.  And if you’re still looking for your Special Purpose J (ahh…  Steve Martin), choose one of the tools described above to discover what brings you meaning.    It doesn’t have to be what you do every day.  It doesn’t have to be your career.  It doesn’t even have to be a big deal.  But there’s something that makes you feel like your life has purpose and that you are part of something bigger than yourself.  What is it?

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
 P.S. To receive these posts directly into your inbox each week, simply sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page. You’ll also receive access to my most recent free webinar on the science of happiness (positive psychology).
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:

The Five Pillars of Well-Being #3: Relationships

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.

The power of our connections

There are dozens of studies showing the benefits of strong relationships and I want to highlight two of them.  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.  268 men were enrolled as sophomores and probed and prodded, interviewed, and followed through wars, marriages, careers, kids, grandkids and old age.  George Vaillant, who’s directed this study and has analyzed this data since the 60’s said,  “Our intimate attachments to other people — and them to us — matter and they matter more than anything else in the world.”  (BTW, the research and many fascinated stories from the participants can be found in the Atlantic magazine here:  What Makes Us Happy?)

Whether it’s intimate relationships, friends or colleagues at work, 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.  In this post, I’ll be sticking to those bits of advice that have a strong scientific basis.

Look for the good in others and express it to them.  John Gottman has been studying relationships for 40 years and can predict relationships that will be successful and those that will fail with over 90% accuracy.  Couples that stay together happily express five explicitly positive comments for every negative one.  In Marcial Losada’s decades of research on business teams, he’s found that the most successful teams have a ratio of at least three positive comments for every negative one in their meetings.  Make it a habit to share your appreciation of partners, friend s and colleagues and you’ll be well on your way to strengthening those relationships.  (Remember all the gratitude exercises I shared in the past?  You know, where you made a habit of thanking someone every day for something they did that you appreciated?  Those are the habits that start to make this method come more naturally.)

Proactively manage conflicts.  Conflict is part of relationships.   How that conflict is managed significantly influences whether a relationship will thrive.  Gottman found that relationships characterized by criticism, defensiveness or contempt and couples that constantly deferred conflict were on a path to dysfunction and separation.  Successful relationships were marked by partners who share their perspectives honestly, listen with curiosity, take responsibility for even their smallest contribution to the conflict and know how to quickly repair when they go off the handle.   Take a look at how you react and respond in conflicts.  When you find yourself going down the low road of attacking and criticizing, call yourself out.  Take a break from the conversation if you need to.  While effecting these patterns isn’t easy, even small changes in your response to conflict can result in significant positive change.

Spend time together and have fun.  Strong relationships require time together.  Schedule regular date nights, family activities and work gatherings where you talk about things besides work.   Have fun together.  It’s those trivial moments that provide profound opportunities for connection.

Celebrate.  Squeeze as much positivity out of good news as you can.  Research shows that responding with enthusiasm and interested questions when good news is shared fosters trust, intimacy and satisfaction with the relationship.  While negative or passive responses undercut those benefits and lead to negative relationship outcomes.

My experience

My greatest priorities revolve around relationships.  I work hard at connecting with others, infusing positivity and making space to work through conflicts.  Of course some of the ‘work’ is really fun, like celebrating with friends, chatting over coffee or dinner and having adventures together.  Feeling that I have a community that loves and supports me allows me take more risks and to be the person I want to be.  And when things are hard, I have the people to turn to who help me get through it.  And the more I seem to give to my social network, the more I receive.

Take home message

Some of these ideas will be very familiar, others may be new.  But take a minute to check in with this list.  Are there some things you’ve let fall off your priority list?  Are there relationships that could use a little effort right now?   You don’t have to take on all this at once, but just pick one to play with this week.  Schedule a date with your partner or a fun adventure with a friend.  Ask a coworker out to lunch to connect.   Consistent effort put into your relationships will pay off in the form of greater well-being.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
P.S. To receive these posts directly into your inbox each week, simply sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page. You’ll also receive access to my most recent free webinar on the science of happiness (positive psychology).
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:

Crap or Cone: Gratitude Year Round

Last week was Thanksgiving – our national holiday about appreciating what we have.  I hope you celebrated the holiday with friends and family and a healthy dose of gratitude.

As my regular readers know, I often focus on gratitude and encourage everyone to develop a daily habit of thankfulness (go to this link to read about the best way to integrate this habit into your life and find additional links for more great gratitude information.)  In this way, you can expand Thanksgiving to the whole year.

A good friend and long-term coaching client of mine recently did a TED talk which includes a wonderfully memorable metaphor for gratitude.  He calls it “Crap or Cone.”

While I highly recommend you watch the full 17 minute talk when you get some time, I’ve pulled up the most powerful bit right here (watch until 9:12 – about 2 mins):


Gratitude, Gifting and Grandpa:  John Styn at TEDxAmericasFinestCity.



Go on.  Click it.  I’ll wait…



If you really don’t have two minutes right now (really?  It’s incredibly entertaining!), here are a few choice quotes from the video:

“At every moment in your life, you hold an ice cream cone and you’ve got one foot in dog crap.  In every moment you’ve got aches and pains, you got people that don’t like you and you’ve got work to be done.  And every moment of your life you’ve got laughing babies, your favorite music, sunsets.  All the time.

“And the degree to which you enjoy your life is vastly determined by where you place your focus… 

“But when you can start practicing this, when you start recalibrating your baseline, suddenly the world is amazing…  There is an infinite number of things in reality, there are a finite amount of moments we are alive.  So being disciplined about where we place our focus means everything. “  – John Styn, TEDx

Sometimes your “crap” will overwhelm your focus.  It’s ok to work on scraping it off your shoe or planning how to avoid stepping in it the next time.  But when that work is done, turn back to what is going well.

Find some way to focus on your “cone” every day.  Train your mind to look for what’s good.  Take on a gratitude habit.  Whether it’s writing a gratitude journal, sharing gratitudes around the dinner table or having a gratitude email buddy, what matters is that you get started and you find ways to keep noticing the cone.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
P.S. To receive these posts directly into your inbox each week, simply sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page. You’ll also receive access to my most recent free webinar on the science of happiness (positive psychology).
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:


Pillar of Well-Being #2: Engagement (and Flow), Part II

Last week, I introduced the concept of engagement, a state where you are fully absorbed in an activity  and that Shangra-La space of being “in flow.”  (See last week’s post for more.)  But you have to understand this: you can’t force yourself into a flow state.  The question this week is: how can I make it more likely that I can turn an activity that is just interesting into that magic state of flow?  Here are some tips:

  • Focus on your sense of doing the activity, not the outcome. Flow comes most readily when the activities you are doing have an intrinsic purpose — that you enjoy the activity for the activity’s sake.
  • Be your own laboratory.  When have you experienced flow?  What were you doing?  What were the skills and experiences that were challenged?  Pay attention to when you are in flow, and what triggers or conditions caused it.  How can you recreate that environment regularly?
  • Do ONE THING at a time.  A constantly beeping email or news alert is the surest way to stay out of a state of flow.  Turn off your distractions as much as you can during periods of focused work and/or play.  Engagement and flow require you to be paying attention to the task at hand, not to 5 other things. BTW, limiting distractions is also a great way to improve your productivity overall.
  • See challenges rather than hurdles.  Things rarely go according to plan.  You can view these detours as obstacles/failures or as a way to challenge your skills and expertise.  Each time you can change that perspective, you significantly increase your ability to engage with the activity.  You NEED challenge to tap into this path towards well-being.
  • Set goals and look for immediate feedback.  Activities that allow you to know if you are on track in real time allows you to negotiate any changing demands and adjust your performance in real time to help maintain that flow state.

My Experience

Flow doesn’t happen automatically.  We all have “flow-killers.”  Some of mine (many of which are universal — but you should pay attention to your own triggers!) are:

  • Whenever I focus on getting something from the activity.  For example, when I’m speaking, if I am seeking praise or signups for my email list or sample coaching sessions, I simply don’t go into flow.
  • When I’m feeling judged
  • When I’m trying to perform for others
  • When I’m grasping for that feeling of flow, it rarely arrives.

In my work, I find flow comes more often when I’m focused primarily on offering an experience or some knowledge as a gift.  That gets me out of the expectation mode and opens the door to flow.

Take Home Message

Engagement can be a powerful way to add to your own sense of well-being.  It can make you feel alive and like you are contributing to the world in your own special way.  You can tap into this by seeking out activities that challenge you and push your skills to new levels.  Play with these ideas in your life and see what happens.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
P.S. To receive these posts directly into your inbox each week, simply sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page. You’ll also receive access to my most recent free webinar on the science of happiness (positive psychology).
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:

Pillar of Well-Being #2: Engagement (and Flow) Part I

Since positive psychology’s founding almost 15 years ago, the field has been focused on the importance of positive emotions to a life well-lived.  In the last few years, Martin Seligman, one of positive psychology’s key leaders, has been expanding the focus beyond just positive emotions to the broader purpose of cultivating a comprehensive sense of well-being.  Well-being, in this definition, adds four significant elements,  including:  1) Finding engagement in what you do,  2) Creating positive relationships, 3) Having purpose and meaning in your life and 4) Accomplishing things that are important to you.   This week I’m going to be taking a deep dive into the idea of engagement.

Take a minute now to think of a time that you were totally in the zone.  Where you were fully immersed in an activity with such focus that minutes or hours passed without notice, where you were one with the experience and your every action, movement and thought flowed naturally.

This is engagement at its best, a state positive psychologists call “flow.”   It comes when your skills, interests and abilities are well matched to the challenge at hand.   It occurs most-often when you are doing activities that energize you, especially when you are fully using your skills, experience and knowledge or when you tap into one of your passions.  And this state is often combined with a sense of spontaneous joy or even rapture, while performing a task.   Being engaged in what you are doing — not 24/7 but for brief, frequent periods — can significantly contribute to an overall sense of personal well-being.

How to Increase Your Engagement  

You can’t force flow, but you can create opportunities for increased engagement that will increase your likelihood of experiencing a state of flow.  The key is to find activities that challenge you, and that are well-matched with your skills, experience and knowledge.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Put some challenge into your recreation.  Yes, we all need some rest and downtime.  Television and movies, a long hot bath, an hour to just sit and watch the sun change on the trees — these can all help you relax and reset.  But if you constantly default to these passive activities, you miss out on a lot of opportunities for engagement (and thus a sense of well-being).  Instead, check in with your Happiness List for active things you like to do or experiment with hobbies that play to your strengths and skills.  Find a tennis partner at a similar level, join a soccer team, take up gardening or cooking, find puzzles that match your skill level or a piece of music that is just at the challenging edge of your ability.
  • Use your strengths at work.  The hours you spend working are a GREAT opportunity for engagement and flow.  The key is to know your signature strengths, by which I mean the things you are good at AND that energize you when you do them (more on this in a couple months).  I recommend all my clients all take the StrengthsFinders 2.0 assessment (you need to buy the book to take the assessment).  Then volunteer for projects where you can use those strengths and notice when you are using them in your current work.

My experience

What’s “flow” like?  To help you picture it, here are two experiences where I’ve  experienced flow in my life.

Public speaking

I have experienced flow when I give a positive psychology talk (to a receptive audience, when I feel prepared — more on these caveats, or flow-killers, next week).  When I’m in flow, I no longer control the talk.  I effortlessly move from pre-planned points to interaction with the audience.  The talk just happens.  I find answers to questions come out with ready data and tailored to the inquirer or the company.  And an hour can easily fly by in what seems like minutes.


Here’s a peak flow experience I had while dancing at an outside festival a few years back (excerpted from a Facebook blog post):

“It’s at times like these that I am fully alive. I lose myself in the music, bouncing, jumping, spinning, arms circling — I can close my eyes and let the music move my body. And the DJs were still hitting it hard — the music building up to crescendo after crescendo — each one pumping me with more energy, more flow, more movement. I no longer had any feel for time as I lost myself in the movements of my body and the opening to the energy all around me. There wasn’t a me anymore, I felt completely connected with the music coming down, the aliveness from the century old oak trees and the positive vibes of the people around me.”   (And no, this sense of joy was not fueled by any external chemical supplements, I was just in flow).

Take Home Message

Experiencing engagement and flow can be powerful.  Look to create opportunities at your edge, challenge yourself in the things you enjoy doing and see what comes.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
P.S. To receive these posts directly into your inbox each week, simply sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page. You’ll also receive access to my most recent free webinar on the science of happiness (positive psychology).
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: