John Cruitt, a 62 year old man, decided after over 50 years to contact his third grade teacher. At the age of 11, John's mother died from the complications of MS. His teacher, Cecile Doyle, went to the wake and after class approached John and told him that she was there if he needed anyone. John felt at the time that she understood what he was going through, and always remembered her reaching out to him. So many years later he sent her a letter expressing his gratitude to her. She was very appreciative of the letter, having received it after her husband of many years had passed away. When they talked in person and John thanked her again, Cecile said, "John, what can I say — I'm just glad that we made a difference in each other's life.”

Kindness is an act of benevolence. It is the caring we show for others. As John's story shows, acts of kindness benefit the giver and receiver. Kindness comes from a place of seeing others as being of equal importance as ourselves, and being in touch with our common humanity. We are uplifted even when we hear about acts of kindness.

Psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky has studied kindness and has found that happier people tend to be more kind. She has also found that practicing acts of kindness makes people happier. In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja talks about how kindness works. She suggests that being kind leads us to perceive others more positively, increases our sense of interdependence and community, relieves our guilt or discomfort over the suffering we see with others, and encourages appreciation of what we have. These points are illustrated in the story that Rabindranath Tagore tells:

I lived on the shady side of the road and watched my neighbors' gardens reveling in sunshine. I felt I was poor, and from door to door went with my hunger. The more they gave me from their careless abundance, the more I became aware of my beggar's bowl. Till one morning I awoke from my sleep at the sudden opening of my door, and you came and asked for alms. In despair I broke the lid of my chest open and was startled into finding my own wealth.

Sonja Lyubomirsky has done research showing that practicing acts of kindness can improve our happiness and well being. To have this effect, she found that it is beneficial to set aside a specific day and try to do more kind acts then typical on that day. She states that it is important that the kind acts be chosen freely, not imposed by others. She also observes that  chronically caring for others can at times be a detriment to a person's happiness. This does not mean people shouldn't do this, but that too much caring for others at the sacrifice of one's own needs can be difficult and people in these positions can benefit from additional support. Acts of kindness are more likely to increase well-being when they are done without expectation of return, and when they are done from the perspective that it is better to give then to receive.

So try it! Pick a few things to do for others, large or small. For example: do a chore for someone in your household, pick up litter in your community, spend time with someone who cannot get out on their own, donate money to a good cause, give blood, volunteer your time at a school, hospital, nursing home, charitable organization, give up your seat on the train or bus to someone else, or anything else you can think of. It may improve you life, and if nothing else, the world always needs more kindness.

Hear  John and Cecila tell their story on StoryCorps

New Year's Resolutions: Keys to Being Above Average

Many of us make New Year's resolutions but few of us keep them. In their article "If at First Your Don't Succeed", in the 2002 American Psychologist, Polivy and Herman cite statistics saying:
  • 25% of New Year's resolutions will be abandoned in the first 15 weeks
  • The average number of times a New Years resolution is made is 10
  • Those who manage to make a resolution that lasts for 6 months or more have often tried 5 or 6 times before finally succeeding
  • Many New Year's resolutions are for health related goals
Though the odds may be stacked against us of attaining our New Year's goals, there are some things we can do that will improve our chances of success.

Break down your goals

Once you have selected a goal think of the tasks that you need to do to achieve that goal. For example, to lose weight and be healthier: you can read articles about healthy eating, develop a diet plan, plan menus, track your eating, get a consult from a medical professional, take an exercise class, walk 5000 steps four days a week, bike to work, stand up every hour for a minute, etc. These are just a few of the many small activities that will start you down the path of healthier living.

Track what you are doing

Tracking the tasks you plan to do can improve your motivation. Tracking can be as simple as checking off on the calendar each day you do one of your planned activities. You can also invest in getting a pedometer to measure steps, or use a pedometer or fitness app on your smart phone. You can keep a scrap book of healthy menus that you can add to as you find them, or journal your food intake daily. Anything you can do to keep track of your efforts will help you see your progress, and encourage you to keep going.

Do activities together

You are more likely to stay with activities if other people doing them with you. There are many ways to do this, for example you can do activities with a friend, join a class or group, sign-up for an online community of people wanting to eat better or exercise more, or just go to places where there are other people also doing things to improve their health, like the gym or a public park. By doing things with others you can be inspired, learn, and be supported.

Keep going

M.H. Alderson said, “If at first you don't succeed, you are doing about average.”As the research I presented earlier suggests, many of us will abandon our resolutions. Prepare for the fact that sooner or later you will hit obstacles and stop following through on your efforts. This does not mean you can never achieve your goals, it just means you need to start again. So, if you want to be above average with your New Year's resolution, follow the old Japanese proverb, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

Tragedy A Time to Come Together

I just learned about the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. It is hard to know how to respond when something so tragic occurs. Events like this stir up many difficult feelings, such as confusion, fear, anger, sadness, and hopelessness. We asked ourselves, what should we do? How do we talk to our children about this?

What can schools do?

There are no simple answers, but I would like to share a few thoughts that may be of help. First of all, despite the all too frequent reports of school shootings, schools remain one of the safest environments for children. In terms of sheer numbers, many more children are harmed outside of school then in school. In terms of what schools need to do eliminate these types of tragedies, currently there is no effective way of predicting who is going to do something like this. Also, I heard a journalist who has covered school shootings say that there is little evidence that more security and zero tolerance policies have made much difference. What does seem to help is more resources, and more supports for children and their families.

What can parents say to their children?

Parents need to tell their children that they love them, and that they and the staff at the school are there to protect them. They should also tell their children that they want to hear any thoughts, worries, fears or concerns their children may be having. After that they just need to just listen, to acknowledge whatever their children are thinking or feeling, and to let them know they are there for them. Listening and being there for your children are the most helpful things you can do. We cannot explain away our children's difficult feelings, or our own for that matter. But we can listen to and support each other.

What can we do as a community?

Again I do not have answer to this, but I would suggest that we do the same thing that we would do for our children. We can listen to each other, and support each other. A terrible event like this is alien, it is impossible to understand how someone can do this, and alienating, causing fear and distrust. The only antidote I know is connection.

Martin Luther King said after his home was fire-bombed and his children were threatened, 

The chain reaction of evil- hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars- must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation…love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend…By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its
very nature, love creates and builds up.

We can connect more deeply, reach out to our neighbors and friends, and trust that in the end it will be our love and humanity that will heal us. 

For additional resources click on the resources below: 

Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting 
Managing your distress in the aftermath of a shooting
A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope  

What is Mental Health

We often associate mental health with mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, stress or trauma. But mental health is more then the absence of problems. Just correcting the things that go wrong does not tell us what we need to do to make things go right. The absence of problems doesn't help us decide on our goals, doesn't point us to what is good in life, doesn't guide us in how to raise our children or make our communities better. For this we need information on our capacities to face adversity, promote positive feelings, be productive, develop sustaining social relationships and find meaning and purpose. These capacities help us live our lives to the fullest, and are associated to what Martin Seligman, a founder of positive psychology, refers to as flourishing.

Symptoms of Flourishing

Below is a list of capacities that are associated to mental health and flourishing that I have compiled from a variety of sources:

  • Emotional awareness- knowing and understanding one's own feelings

  • Emotional self control- being able to manage one's own feelings

  • Empathy- being aware of how other people feel

  • Social skills-being able to have close, supportive relationships

  • Compassion- for self and others when when we and others cannot handle our lives perfectly

  • Forgiveness- once we are out of situations where we've been mistreated, being able to free ourselves from the prison of anger and resentment that this mistreatment has caused

  • Gratitude- appreciation for what we have

  • Stress tolerance- able to sit with a certain amount of stress

  • Future minded- able to postpone immediate gratification of short-term needs to achieve long range plans

  • Optimism- a belief in our ability to handle future events

  • Problem solving- ability to come up with effective solutions to new problems

  • Flexibility- being able to bring different skills and strategies to different situations

  • Autonomy- being guided by socially accepted internal standards and values

  • Social acceptance- tolerating and accepting other people even when they are different from ourselves

  • Purpose- having sustaining personal or spiritual beliefs that help us deal with the big questions of life, able to see ourselves as part of something bigger then ourselves

    This may not be a complete list, but I believe it is a good start for anyone wanting to live a life that is more then an absence of problems. If you want to be diagnosed as flourishing, cultivate these capacities!

    Until next time,


In our daily lives, we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but the gratefulness that makes us happy. Albert Clarke

Gratitude for what we have and the people who have made a difference in our lives has been shown to raise satisfaction with life. There are many ways that gratitude leads to increased happiness. One is that it limits the effects of social comparison. Looking at those who have it better then we do is a great source of dissatisfaction. Realizing what we have in our lives decreases this sense of deprivation. By paying attention to the good in our lives we can relive positive feelings, which can help counter negative feelings. Remembering those who have helped us builds our sense of connection and puts us in touch with the kindness of others. Taking the time to appreciate what we have and those who have been there for us prevents us from taking things for granted. Focusing on what we appreciate and value in our own lives helps us see our lives as half full rather then half empty.

There have been a number of studies on the effects gratitude can have on our lives. In one study, Martin Seligman Ph.D., author of numerous articles and books including Authentic Happiness and most recently Flourishing, gave people an assignment to write a gratitude letter. He then had his subjects present this letter to the person they wrote it to. What Dr. Seligman found was that the people who carried out this assignment showed an improvement of their mood even a month later. This is a very powerful effect for a one time activity. The New York Times Magazine chose Dr. Seligman's gratitude letter exercise as one of the Top 100 Ideas of 2003.

I have the pleasure of teaching a Positive Psychology class to doctoral students in the Antioch New England Clinical Psychology department. Every year I have my students write a gratitude letter. I'd like to share a message I received from one student of mine who did this exercise by writing a letter thanking an Uncle who had been important in his life.

I .. wanted to thank you for the inclusion of the gratitude letter. I chose to mail mine because I was worried about the recipient dying before I got to say it to him. Unfortunately, I was right and he died on December 3. When I went to the funeral, my cousins explained that he had them read it over and over to him. It was one of the last things that he heard in this world. Words cannot explain how much this has meant to me. Thank you.

Is there someone who has made a difference in your life, who you have not had the chance to thank yet? Here is your chance. Below are the instructions for the gratitude letter exercise. If you do this and want to share your experience, let me know.

Think of someone who has been kind to you and to whom you have not expressed your gratitude. Write a letter saying specifically why you appreciated them and how it has effected you. Arrange a meeting without telling them about the letter. Read them the letter and give them a copy.

Until next time,

Taking Control of Our Destiny

The awareness that health is dependent upon habits that we control makes us the first generation in history that to a large extent determines its own destiny.” This was written by Jimmy Carter in his 1987 book, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.

George Vaillant MD in his book, Aging Well, examines the lives of over 800 adults from early adulthood to old age. He looked at those who were doing well later in life, who he calls the “”Happy-Well,” and compared them to those who were having more problems later in life- the “Sad-Sick.” He found that avoiding cigarette smoking and getting regular exercise were the best predictors of good physical health later in life. The best predictor of good mental health later in life was not drinking alcohol in excess. If we add to this the health effects of obesity, we have a recipe for a healthier and happier life. All we have to do is avoid cigarettes, not drink in excess, exercise, watch what we eat, and we will greatly increase our chances of being one of the “the Happy-Well.”

Sounds simple, but then why is it so hard to do? The main reason is that we tend to justify our decisions, even our bad decisions. Psychology explains this tendency using the idea of Cognitive Dissonance. The classic example of this is the old Aesop fable The Fox and the Grapes. In this story the fox sees some grapes hanging from a vine, but no matter how much he jumps he can't reach them. He gives up and tells himself that the grapes were probably sour. By telling himself this he justifies his decision not to continue trying to get the grapes. We do the same thing when faced with having to make a difficult choice, like quitting cigarettes, getting into an exercise routine or eating a healthier diet. We might make an effort to do one of these things but then encounter the reality that changing our habits is hard! Like the fox, we might then give up, and then look for reasons to justify giving up.

What are our “sour grapes?”

The following are some of the ways of thinking we use that get in the way of our making better choices:
  • Denial: We tell ourselves that there is no problem. We avoid looking at the evidence that we need to make some changes. Mad magazine's Alfred E. Newman famous saying, “What me worry?” captures this approach.
  • Minimization: We see we might have a problem, but tell ourselves that the problem is “no big deal.”
  • Rationalization: We give ourselves excuses not to change, “Everyone is going to die anyway,” or “I am too busy to make the effort to change now.”
  • Externalization: We deny personal responsibility, we see ourselves as victims of external forces. “The advertising industry keeps pushing these bad foods on us,” or “I would be out of place if I didn't have a drink.”
  • Internalization: We tell ourselves that we can't make a change, “I don't have any will power.”
All of these lead to the same result- we continue to put our futures at risk by not changing harmful habits.

How we can regain control

To make positive changes in our lives that can have long lasting effects on our health and happiness we need to recognize and combat the rationalizations and excuses we give ourselves to avoid doing what we know is right.

  • Denial: We need to allow ourselves to look at the facts, look at the potential risks of maintaining unhealthy behaviors. There a many feelings that support denial, such as the worry that if we face a problem we will have to face the shame of having that problem or the fear we will not be able to do anything about it. It may be helpful to recognize that change takes time and the first step is learning about the problem, and not put pressure on ourselves to change immediately.
  • Minimizing: Similar to denial we need to open ourselves up to information, to learn about both the risks of having unhealthier habits, and also the benefits of changing those habits.
  • Rationalization: We need to develop arguments to counter these rationalizations. For example, “Yes it is true we are all going to die of something, but why speed the process up or make the last years of our lives less enjoyable?” Or, “Yes there is a lot going on in our lives and it is hard to find the time to do something new, but don't we usually find time for the things that are really important to us, maybe we need to look at our priorities.” If we are having trouble coming up with counter arguments we think about what we would say to a friend who presented the same rational we are using, or ask other people how they would respond to our rationalizations.
  • Externalization: There are many powerful influences on our behavior, both on a large scale and in our immediate lives, but in the end it is our life and we need to take responsibility for it.
  • Internalization: Just because we don't have the will power now doesn't mean we cannot develop it. There are a number of things that we can do to improve our will power, for example: building our commitment to change by looking at the benefits, having a good plan for how we are going to make positive changes, increasing social support, and many others that I will be looking at in future blogs.
We do not have to be slaves to our bad habits. By recognizing and challenging the thinking that holds us back from making positive changes in our lives, we can as Jimmy Carter said, take control of our destiny!

Until next time,

Pleasure the Spice and Bane of Life, and What Goldilocks Teaches Us

Pleasure, the Spice of Life
When we think of happiness we often associate it with pleasure. Pleasure is the spice of life.  We are all drawn to pleasurable activities. One way of defining something as pleasurable is that you would want more of it. Pleasures comes in may different forms. There are the raw sensual pleasures associated to taste, touch, or smell. We all enjoy tasty foods; we are turned on by gentle physical touch or sexual stimulation; we are drawn to the smell of a flower or freshly baked bread. Other pleasures are less physical, like the enjoyment of a beautiful sunset, hearing great music, or remembering a special moment with a loved one. Life without pleasure would be dull.

The problem with pleasure is that it is fleeting. Human beings are designed to adapt to their environment. If we live in a big city we learn to tune out the many background noises.  If we are traveling the same road all the time we stop paying close attention to the scenery and go on automatic pilot. Adapting is a good thing in many ways, as it allows us to free up attention to focus on other things. However, it also creates problems for us when it comes to pleasure because we adapt to that too. The tenth spoonful of ice cream is not going to be as sweet as the first one was. Buying the new car, the new flat screened TV, and the big house are nice- for awhile. But then we start taking them for granted and need to get something else to have the same experience again. This leads to something called the hedonic treadmill: having to do more of something to continue to get pleasure.

The Dark Side of Pleasure
The dark side of pleasure is addiction. Because we tend to adapt to pleasures, to continue getting pleasure from an activity we need more and more of it, or more intense versions. People who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, overeating, shopping, etc, all started out getting pleasure from their activities. Over time, to counter the effects of adaptation, they had to do more and more to get the same level of pleasure. David J. Linden in his book, The Compass of Pleasure, describes that with addictions things get to the point where the person's capacity to experience pleasure gets worn out, they are less capable of experiencing simple pleasures, and need increasing amounts of whatever they are addicted to to feel any pleasure at all. This leads to needing to do more and more but getting less and less from it. Eventually the addicted person needs their addiction just to feel normal, and this only lasts as long as they are using.

I believe that few of us would want to experience only pleasure all the time. Many of the things we value require postponing immediate pleasure to achieve a later reward. If we only sought pleasure our lives would eventually become devoid off all activities we normally see as meaningful. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 are two novels that explore a world focused on pleasure and I believe few of us would want to end up in the societies these stories describe. A life of only pleasure would probably be pretty dull too.

What Would Goldilocks Do?
In the classic fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks ventures out and come upon the home of the three bears. She goes inside and sees three bowls of porridge on the table. She tries each one and discovers that one is too hot, another is too cold, but the third is just right, and she enjoys that one. She goes on and practices the same approach to deciding on a chair to sit in and a bed to sleep in. What does this teach us? First of all, venture out! Do different things. Having variety in our lives counters the tendency to adapt to our pleasures. Second, we need to pay attention, notice what we are doing. Goldilocks was mindful of what she did, she took the time to taste the different bowls of porridge. We need to slow down and pay attention. Our lives are filled with potentially pleasurable experiences if we just stop to notice them. Lastly we need to seek some moderation in our pleasures. We don't want to eliminate pleasure but we also don't want to over-do it either. We need to look for what is “just right” for us.

Future Directions
Martin Seligman Ph.D., one of the leading researchers and champions of Positive Psychology, in his book Authentic Happiness talks about how we can expand what he calls the Pleasant Life. He suggests that we can learn how to take the sting out of the past through forgiveness, increase our enjoyment of the present through mindfulness and gratitude, and improve our perspective of the future through cultivating optimism. So stay tuned, I will be covering these approaches and much more in future blogs.

So enjoy, until next time,