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Nov 13 17

Finding Flow

by Beth

Flow is a mental state that occurs when you’re so absorbed by an activity that you are completely immersed in the moment. You lose your sense of self, forgetting about your worries and concerns, and your sense of time is distorted. Athletes describe it as being “in the zone”.

Experiencing flow is good for our well-being and our success. The actual state of flow is void of emotion. We are so wrapped up in the moment that we don’t notice how we are feeling. Yet on reflection, people report having enjoyed the experience. This makes flow a powerful source of intrinsic motivation.

Neurochemicals are released in our brains when we experience flow, helping us to learn better. In a study done by DARPA, military snipers who were trained while in a state of flow learned 230 percent faster than normal. The focus that accompanies flow can dramatically improve performance. According to a 10-year study by McKinsey, top executives were five times more productive when they were in flow.

There are three main conditions for achieving flow. First, skills must be well matched to the challenge of the task. When a challenge exceeds our level of skill, we become anxious and stressed. Alternatively, if the task is too easy for our skill level, we become bored and distracted. A balance between the two produces a degree of focus and satisfaction, which makes the experience enjoyable and contributes to optimal performance.

Second, we need clear goals with feedback regarding progress. Goals give direction and structure to the task, and feedback helps us adjust our performance in order to maintain the flow state. Playing sports or video games are often associated with flow because they provide both a clear goal and feedback.

The third condition is to eliminate distractions. Studies show that it takes up to twenty minutes of focus before you become fully immersed in an activity. So you have to shut down email and social media and put away your phone in order to maintain focus.

See if you can find more opportunities to experience flow. Find an activity that you enjoy and that requires a certain level of focus. This can be anything: a project at work, a hobby, or cooking dinner. Eliminate distractions and commit to it for at least 20 minutes. You’ll appreciate the way it makes you feel and the sense of accomplishment you will gain!

Oct 17 17

How Curiosity Helps You Learn

by Beth

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”  – Albert Einstein

Did you know that curiosity helps you learn better? It also makes learning more fun.

That’s because curiosity impacts your brain activity and chemistry. In one study, psychologists gave volunteers over 100 trivia questions and asked them to rate how curious they were to know the answers to each question. Then they used an fMRI machine to monitor the brain activity of the volunteers while they reviewed the questions and their answers.

Results showed greater activity in the area of the brain responsible for memory formation for the questions people had been more curious about. The participants were later tested on the trivia questions, and they were more likely to remember the right answers to the high-curiosity questions.

What’s even more interesting is that the researchers included random pictures of people’s faces in between some of the questions and answers. Participants were also given a memory test for those faces, and results showed that recognition was higher for faces that had been presented during states of high curiosity.

This means that curiosity puts our brain into a learning mode, which helps us learn the things we are motivated to learn and anything else there is to learn in that moment. So teachers can make it easier for students to learn math by using problems that are tailored to their interests.

The brain scans also showed that the region of the brain associated with reward and pleasure was activated when people were curious. Dopamine, a feel-good chemical, is released in the brain when we perceive something to be novel, uncertain, or challenging. So we experience higher levels of dopamine when we are curious about something.

All of this points to the value of stimulating curiosity to enhance learning. Schools and workplaces alike will benefit from tapping into people’s natural curiosity when designing learning experiences. Start with questions that will spark curiosity.

What are you interested in? How can you use that to learn more yourself?

Sep 11 17

Focus on the Positive to Build Your Well-Being

by Beth

I gave a TEDx talk at George Mason University yesterday. The title of my talk was “How Focus Builds Well-Being”. I’ve been studying well-being for many years now, and what I’ve learned is that our well-being is up to us. It depends on what we pay attention to, what we focus on.

I highlighted three things that you can choose to focus on in order to build your well-being: people, the positive, and the present moment. Nurturing my relationships, directing my attention to what is good, and spending more of my time focused on the present moment have all boosted my own well-being. Research shows that these things can help us all to thrive.

The last few weeks I’ve been working especially hard to stay focused on the positive. My husband and I have just become empty nesters. Our son is in Paris and our daughter is in Boston. And our house is very quiet.

There are so many small things each day that remind me that our children are gone. I miss them so much! It would be easy for me to focus on their absence. But I know that I have a choice. So I choose to focus on the positive.

Alex and Emily are both so happy! Each time I talk to them I hear it in their voices and in the stories they share. They are enjoying their classes, their new friendships, and their new experiences. So I choose to focus on their joy.

And I choose to focus on the fact that my husband and I did our job. As parents, our job was to prepare our children to become happy, well-adjusted, independent adults. It was the hardest, longest, most frustrating, and most rewarding job I’ve ever had. And we did it!

I also choose to focus on the exciting new chapter that my husband and I are entering in our lives. We both have work that we love and that we can pursue now with less guilt about not always being there for the kids. And we have more time to nurture our relationship and enjoy our own new experiences. It’s going to be great!

Aug 29 17

Why Sleep is so Important

by Beth

As summer winds down, our lives start to get busy again. The demands of work, school, and other activities can make it hard to get enough sleep. And that can hurt your well-being. A lack of sleep causes anxiety and depression and impairs your brain functioning. It also weakens your immune system and contributes to weight gain.

These are all good reasons to make an effort to get more sleep, but what happens to your brain when it’s asleep may convince you even more. During sleep your brain creates and organizes memories. Throughout the day your brain encodes memories, but they aren’t stored for the long-term until you go to sleep. Your brain also processes complex information while you sleep. This explains why we learn something better after sleeping on it. It’s never a good idea to pull an all-nighter. If you stay up late trying to learn more, a lack of sleep will keep you from remembering it the next day.

Another really important function of sleep is the cleaning out of toxins in your brain. Researchers injected dye into the brains of mice and discovered that when they were asleep the dye flowed rapidly, but it barely flowed at all when the mice were awake. That’s because the space between their brain cells and ours increases by 60 percent when we sleep. This allows toxic proteins that are by-products of neural activity when we are awake to be cleared from the brain. Not getting enough sleep can prevent your brain from flushing out toxins that may contribute to diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night should be a priority. Here are some tips for getting a better night’s sleep:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Turn off televisions, smartphones, laptops, and tablets at least 30 minutes before going to bed to limit your exposure to blue light.
  • Don’t bring your phone into your bedroom. Buy an alarm clock if you need one.
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime.
  • Keep your sleeping environment dark, quiet, and cool.
  • Set an alarm clock to go to bed. Work backwards from when you need to wake up to make sure you will get 7 to 8 hours of sleep.
Jul 26 17

Protect Your Telomeres to Live Longer

by Beth

I recently attended the World Congress on Positive Psychology in Montreal, Canada. It was exciting to hear about the latest research being done in the field. I was especially intrigued by the studies that Elissa Epel presented regarding the effects of stress on cellular aging.

Epel and her colleague, Elizabeth Blackburn, have written a book called The Telomere Effect. In it they describe the role of telomeres in the aging process and identify positive psychology interventions that can protect telomeres to slow disease and lengthen lives.

Telomeres are protective end caps on our DNA. The process of cell division causes them to shorten throughout our lives, but stress and other conditions can make them shorten more rapidly. The shorter our telomeres, the higher our risk of disease, including heart disease, cancer, and dementia, which leads to a shorter life.

Epel discussed her research on parents experiencing the stress of caring for chronically sick children. Results show that the way we respond to stress affects our telomeres. According to diary entries, caregivers who ruminated more about their situation, demonstrating a threat response to stress rather than a challenge response, had shorter telomeres. Caregivers who participated in a mindfulness retreat showed a significant increase in the length of their telomeres in just three weeks!

Here are some other steps you can take to protect your telomeres:

  • Be social. Social connections lower your stress levels, which prevents telomere shortening.
  • Move. Sedentary behavior is associated with shorter telomeres. Exercise appears to have the greatest impact when you are stressed.
  • Get enough sleep. People who sleep more, at least seven hours, have longer telomeres.
  • Look on the bright side. Optimism is strongly associated with longer telomeres.
  • Eat a Mediterranean diet. Foods that lower inflammation, like vegetables, fruits, fatty fish, olive oil, and nuts, prevent telomere shortening.
Jun 13 17

Arts and Nature; A Double Dose of Well-Being

by Beth

My husband and I recently attended a concert with friends at Wolf Trap. Located in Vienna, Virginia, Wolf Trap is the only performing arts center that is also a national park. The 117-acre park offers recreational activities, dining venues, and over 80 performances in a majestic outdoor amphitheater each summer.

We love attending events at Wolf Trap and as I swayed to the music and looked over at the lush forest beyond the sloping green lawn, I realized that Wolf Trap is built around two key factors for well-being: arts and nature.

The link between nature and well-being is clear. Studies show that exposure to nature reduces stress, boosts mood, and increases mindfulness. Research at Berkeley found that after standing in a grove of towering eucalyptus trees, people were significantly more likely to help someone who dropped something as they passed by. Being in nature activates the region of the brain associated with empathy and love, which inspires feelings of compassion.

There is growing evidence of the impact of arts on well-being. The arts can reduce stress and increase learning and creativity. They bring people together, and social connection and community are critical for well-being. A recent study of low- and moderate-income neighborhoods in New York City found that the neighborhoods with greater cultural resources had lower crime rates, fewer cases of child abuse and neglect, and children with higher test scores.

The arts and nature can both provide awe-inspiring experiences. Awe gives us a sense of hope and meaning. It also has health benefits, like decreasing inflammation.

Unfortunately, people are spending less time in nature these days and when we are outside our attention is often focused on our smartphones. People are also attending fewer arts events. Summer is a great time to enjoy the beautiful outdoors and there are many places where you can attend concerts in parks or amphitheaters. Do yourself a favor and make plans to see a show!

May 23 17

Embracing the Unknown

by Beth

Some people handle the unknown better than others. I am not a big fan of surprises. My fondness for making plans is directly linked to my desire to know what to expect. Yet I know through my research on the science of well-being that learning to accept and even embrace the unpredictable has a number of psychological benefits. Engaging in new experiences helps us learn, grow, and form relationships. Accepting that there are things we don’t know and things we can’t control reduces anxiety and increases resilience.

In their book, Surprise, Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger identify four types of surprise: ambiguity, novelty, uncertainty, and vulnerability. Ambiguity occurs when there is no single right answer. People who tolerate ambiguity are open to different viewpoints and love to learn. Novelty refers to new experiences. People who like novelty enjoy trying new things. Uncertainty is when there is one right answer, but it is unknown. Not knowing can make it hard to prepare. People who tolerate uncertainty are less stressed about not knowing and are more open to change and taking risks. Vulnerability is a willingness to be yourself, despite what others may think. People who are comfortable with vulnerability take emotional risks, which can improve their relationships.

Learning about the different types of surprise has helped me to see that I am much more comfortable with unpredictability than I thought. I’m pretty OK with ambiguity and vulnerability, and I’m very open to novelty. The only type of surprise that I really have a problem with is uncertainty.

I see that my love of travel is due to the fact that I like being exposed to different ways of doing things (ambiguity), I love seeing new sights and trying new things (novelty), and I’m comfortable meeting new people and opening up to them (vulnerability). But I also find travel to be stressful due to my lack of tolerance for uncertainty. I’m getting better about focusing on the things that I can control and trying not to worry so much about what I can’t control. But it is a constant work in progress.

What about you? Which type of surprise are you comfortable with? Which one do you need to work on?

Apr 24 17

How Positivity Can Help Save the Earth

by Beth

The Smithsonian Earth Optimism Summit was held in Washington DC last weekend. The goal of the summit was to convene researchers and environmentalists to share solutions for preserving biodiversity, protecting natural resources, and addressing climate change. What a fantastic idea! Rather than focusing on all the problems and threats we are facing, they chose to highlight examples of what is working.

I’ve written before about the impact of how we frame our conversations. Focusing on the negative can lead to a sense of helplessness, whereas adopting a more positive, solutions-focused approach instills hope and motivates action.

Appreciative Inquiry is a positive approach to change that shifts from looking for problems to discovering what’s working. The aim is to identify success stories and figure out how to replicate them. That’s what participants at the Earth Optimism Summit were doing.

One example would be how to replicate my friend Enric Sala’s Pristine Seas project. As an Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, he founded the project to “find, survey, and help protect the last wild places in the ocean.” Thanks to the efforts of Enric and his team, over 4.5 million square kilometers of ocean territory have been protected.

Enric’s work is based on the belief that the best way to protect the seas is to preserve vast areas, which is necessary for diversity to flourish. This way of thinking about conservation can be traced back to earlier work by our mutual friend Tom Lovejoy, who has been doing research on the effects of deforestation in the Amazon for almost 50 years. Tom discovered that fragmentation of the rain forest resulting from deforestation could dramatically reduce biodiversity if the remaining fragments of forest were too small. So we have learned that the solution to preserving biodiversity in forests and oceans is to protect areas that are large enough to maintain a wide variety of life.

It’s exciting to see conservationists sharing positive stories and adopting a solutions-focused approach based on what is working in order to save our beautiful Earth.

Apr 11 17

Want a Happier Marriage? Try Acceptance

by Beth

What would you guess the most read article in The New York Times in 2016 was about? The presidential election? The Rio Olympics? The war in Syria? Actually, it was Alain de Botton’s article “Why you will marry the wrong person”.

Botton’s explanation for this is that we have unrealistic expectations “that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.” In order to have a happy marriage we must accept that 1) every human will frustrate, anger, and disappoint us and 2) our spouse is human and so are we.

Close relationships flourish when we know and accept others for who they are. Obviously, there are some things that are not acceptable, but in general we tend to err on the side of not accepting others because of the flaws that make them human.

One way to be more accepting is to make relationship-enhancing attributions. Attributions are the explanations we make for events in our lives. Relationships are stronger when we make internal attributions for positive behaviors (my husband came home early because he wants to spend time with me) and external attributions for negative behaviors (my husband came home late because he was caught in traffic). This is what parents typically do with their children. If your child yells “I hate you”, you would be hurt, but you’d wonder what was happening in her life at that moment to make her so upset.

We also need to accept our differences. People have different opinions and different interests. Accepting that your spouse has different political views or likes different activities is important. In fact, these differences are one of the benefits of a relationship. They help us to grow by having experiences that are new and interesting.

Strive to be a little more accepting and, hopefully, you’ll find you married the right person!

Mar 20 17

World Happiness Summit

by Beth

I returned yesterday from the World Happiness Summit in Miami. Three amazing days learning about happiness, mindfulness, and well-being from positive psychologists, spiritual leaders, and hundreds of people who clearly understand that happiness is a choice. I thought I’d share some of the highlights with you in celebration of the International Day of Happiness.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar opened the summit discussing the three things he believes will make you happier. The first is to expand your context. If you broaden your perspective to view life from a bigger context, your problems become smaller. He suggested visiting a planetarium if you have trouble doing this. Second is to commit yourself to a cause. When you are pursuing a purpose, even something like making others happy, small things don’t matter as much. Third is to have compassion for others. If someone is upsetting you, try to see their stress and sadness and wish for them to be happy.

Tal Ben-Shahar and Shawn Achor both talked about the importance of accepting negative emotions. Achor opened up about his struggle with depression and Ben-Shahar reminded us that if we don’t experience negative emotions we are either psychopaths or we are dead. He believes happiness is wholeness, that optimal well-being comes from embracing all that we are. This includes giving yourself permission to be human and experience the full range of emotions. His SPIRE model of “wholebeing” includes five areas of well-being: spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional.

Sonja Lyubomirsky discussed factors that influence the effectiveness of positive activities. It’s important to find activities that fit with your personality and to consider the optimal frequency for practicing the activity. One of her studies revealed that people who counted their blessings once a week got a bigger happiness boost than people who did so daily. Michelle Gielan reminded us of the power of our words. Shifting to solutions-focused stories can motivate people to create positive change.

Let me end with a few of my favorite quotes:

“Stop chasing happiness and it will come to you.” ~ Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

“What we practice grows stronger.” ~ Shauna Shapiro

“If you have an opportunity to be generous, take it.” ~ Maureen Healy

“Don’t believe everything you think.” ~ Deborah Heisz

“Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” ~ Blaine Fowers