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Mar 21 20

Look for the Helpers, Be a Helper

by Beth

Two ways to boost your mood during these difficult weeks are to notice all of the wonderful things people are doing to help others and to find ways that you, too, can help.

It’s inspiring to see how hard times can bring out the best in people. Acts of kindness are everywhere! NBA players, including Kevin Love and Zion Williams, are paying arena workers while games are cancelled and Steph Curry and his wife are providing 1 million meals to Oakland students who can’t attend school. Singers like Chris Martin, John Legend, and others, are using social media to play music for us from their homes.

Companies are also doing good. Some are shifting production to make needed medical supplies. TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy are donating supplies. Other companies are offering services for free, like operas from the Met or homeschooling assistance from Khan Academy. Stores are designating certain hours for at-risk shoppers. Lyft is donating thousands of rides for low-income individuals needing medical transportation and to deliver meals to kids receiving free lunches and home-bound seniors.

Noticing and feeling gratitude for these kind acts, like the people in Madrid who applauded healthcare workers from their balconies, makes us feel good. The last time I went to the grocery store there were more people stocking the shelves than shopping. I did go very early in the morning! And I felt immensely grateful that they were putting themselves at risk so that I could get the food I needed.

Finding ways that we can do good makes us feel even better. First, know that you are already doing good by staying home. Social distancing is the most important thing any of us can do to minimize the spread of the virus and save lives. Now consider what else you could do. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems we will all face while staying home. Contacting friends and family members as often as possible is another way to do good. If you live near elderly family members, stop by to wave through the window like Max did for his father Mel Brooks.

Some people are picking up medication for at-risk individuals, others are offering to foster animals, and these siblings played the cello for an elderly neighbor. You could share one of your favorite recipes on social media or leave the magazines you have finished reading at a neighbor’s door.

Consider how you could help the small businesses that are being so hard hit. The company I use to compost has lost much of its business due to restaurant and school closings. I am going to pay them for the next 12 months instead of month to month. I’m also buying gift certificates from our favorite restaurants.

Let’s all try to come up with creative ways that we can do good from home. Please share your ideas!

Mar 11 20

Welcoming a Slow Down

by Beth

Anyone who knows me at all knows I’m a big planner. I make plans for everything as far out as possible and changes of plans can make me uncomfortable. So, as you might imagine, the mass cancelations in response to the coronavirus outbreak are definitely throwing me for a loop!

In an effort to stay positive, I’m welcoming the opportunity to practice adaptability and acceptance. And to slow down! Getting better at these things would certainly improve my well-being. People who more readily adjust to change are happier and more resilient. The same holds true for those who accept that there are things they can’t control and focus instead on what they can do.

I can’t control the fact that we should all practice social distancing in order to stay safe and keep others safe. This means canceling plans, which gives us all an opportunity to do less. How often does that happen? How could you use this gift of time in ways that will boost your well-being?

Yesterday our daughter texted us to say Harvard was taking classes online and everyone had to move out within 5 days. That’s a bit stressful! But I’m grateful for the unexpected time together with her. This will give us all a chance to spend more time with our families. Another way to boost well-being is to spend more time outdoors. I plan to take much longer walks and appreciate all of the signs of spring. I’ve been making a list of the flowers I’m going to plant in our yard. Emily and I are committing to a daily at-home yoga practice. Have you discovered “Yoga with Adriene”? Eating more meals at home will give me the chance to try out new recipes. I’ve recently stopped eating meat, so I’m going to learn how to prepare more plant-based meals. Getting rid of clutter always makes me happy. I still have boxes from the move in our garage, so it will be great to finally have time to finish unpacking.

I can’t tell you how much better I feel just thinking of all the things I’m going to have time to do! I will admit that I am very anxious about the spread of coronavirus and am disappointed that so many things are being canceled. But there is always something good! I am truly grateful for the opportunity to slow down and focus on my well-being.

Feb 17 20

Creating Habits for Positive Change

by Beth

The hardest part of change isn’t knowing what you should do, it’s doing it. The two things that have helped me include more well-being practices in my life are: 1) make the behavior easy and 2) find a cue to remind me to do the behavior.

In his book, Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg explains that behaviors happen when there is motivation, ability, and a prompt. While most of us try to rely on motivation to start a new habit, motivation is fickle. We just can’t count on it for behavior change. As far as ability goes, the easier something is to do, the easier it is to turn that behavior into a habit. Finally, no behavior occurs without a prompt. There must be something that nudges you to act.

This means that in order to start a new habit, you need a cue and the behavior needs to be easy. The best prompts are other behaviors you already do. And the way to make something easy is to break it down into the smallest behavior possible. By starting small, you are more likely to be successful, which will inspire you to continue and to grow the behavior. Small behaviors will also let you keep going on bad days, so the habit sticks.

Here are some of the ways I have used prompts and small behaviors to adopt positive habits:

  • Planks twice a day – After I brush my teeth in the morning and at night (cue), I do planks. I started doing a plank for just one count (easy), but I’ve worked my way up to two 30-count planks with some stretching in between. If I’m tired at night or rushed in the morning, I do one short plank to keep the habit alive.
  • Meditate after lunch – After I eat lunch at home (cue), I meditate. I started sitting in a chair and taking a long, deep breath (easy). I slowly added more breaths and now meditate for 20 to 30 minutes. On days that I don’t have time, I sit in the chair for one deep breath.
  • Drink lemon water in the morning – After starting the coffee pot (cue), I squeeze a lemon into water and drink it (easy). If I don’t have any fresh lemons, I still drink water while waiting for the coffee to brew.
  • Mindful pause while waiting in line – After getting into a line (cue), instead of scrolling through my phone, I started taking a long, deep breath and noticing something around me (easy). Now I take two long breaths, notice five things I see and three things I hear, followed by two more deep breaths. If my turn comes before I’m done, I stop and smile.

It can be fun to identify cues and easy behaviors that will help you create habits for positive change. Let me know what you come up with!

Jan 16 20

A New Decade, A New Approach

by Beth

This is the first decade of my adult life that I have begun without having major life goals. I graduated from college in 1990 and dedicated the next 10 years to getting my PhD and starting my family. The following two decades I was hyper focused on my children and my career. In the 2000s I published articles, earned tenure, and edited a journal to advance my academic career. In the 2010s I shifted to teaching leaders and individuals how to build well-being to thrive. My goal was to share the power of positivity and purpose by starting a blog, writing a book, teaching leadership seminars, and giving speeches to diverse groups.

As I start this new decade, my children are now in college and graduate school and I have achieved my biggest career goals. So what now? Instead of focusing on want I want to achieve, I will focus on who I want to be. My goal for the next decade is to become a healthier, more generous person.

I sometimes choose a word for the new year and this year my word is “open”. I will be open to opportunities to be of service, to make a difference, to be my best self. Rather than focusing on specific goals, I will be open to what is needed. Instead of having a concrete plan, I will be open to what comes my way.

I know I will continue to write and give talks, because learning and sharing what I learn with others brings such happiness and meaning to my life. I am grateful to be back at my alma mater. The new relationships I’m building and the many opportunities I have to serve the Georgia Tech community are also a source of great joy.

For an obsessive planner who doesn’t like ambiguity, this is new for me. But so far so good! I am experiencing both curiosity and excitement to see what this next decade will bring. I will embrace moments that allow me to be more kind, helpful, and compassionate. I will make choices that help me to be more healthy, mindful, and grateful. What about you? Who do you want to be?

Nov 16 19

Finding the Good

by Beth

Last week I had a pretty traumatic accident. I almost cut the tip of my finger off with a hand blender. I know, what??? I’m not exactly sure how it happened. The container I had the blender in started to tip over and my instinct was to try to catch it with my free hand. The rest is a blur. I was rushed in an ambulance to the ER with the blender still stuck in my finger, and the wonderful doctors were eventually able to extract the blade.

Since that awful day I’ve been experiencing an overwhelming amount of gratitude. There are so many things I am thankful for. As I sat waiting for the ambulance I was really worried that I was going to lose part of my finger. And that for the rest of my life I would have to explain that it was because I had stuck my hand in a blender. I cut my left finger and I’m right handed. My husband usually rides his bike to work, but that day he had taken his car, so he made it home in 10 minutes. The doctors are amazed by how minimal the damage has been. It appears that the blade somehow missed my arteries and tendons, and x-rays show almost no damage to the bone. I have experienced very little pain. And one more thing, we recently moved and are waiting for our new furniture and rugs to be delivered. So I bled all over our hardwood floors instead of new rugs!

Positive reframing is the practice of looking for more positive ways of seeing things. Events themselves aren’t inherently good or bad. It’s the way we view them that impacts our happiness. I could be focusing on how unlucky I was to have had such a bad accident. I could be complaining about having to do everything with one hand or the weird tingling feeling they say could get worse or the hospital bills we’ll have to pay. I could be frustrated about the money I lost because I had to cancel my flight and the seminar I was scheduled to teach. But instead, I am incredibly grateful!

My accident has reminded me that there is always good. If you look for it you will find it. When I start having negative thoughts about anything I just look down at my finger and smile.

Oct 21 19

Reasons for Hope

by Beth

I started studying women in the workplace fifteen years ago. I’ve written blogs about retaining female talent and gender bias. I also wrote a blog about my frustration with the lack of progress being made towards gender equality. It was in part this frustration that led me to refocus my work on well-being in the workplace. I felt I could help women more by sharing strategies for how to thrive at work despite the challenges they continue to face.

Fortunately, there are many people still working hard to identify ways to close the gender gap. Here are some promising initiatives:

  • One of the biggest obstacles women face is not getting promoted to manager. The recently released Women in the Workplace survey by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org shows that women are getting stuck in entry level positions. Specific recommendations for fixing this problem include setting goals to hire more women into management positions, requiring a diverse slate for promotion decisions, and providing unconscious bias training.
  • Unconscious bias is especially hard to eliminate, but scientists have been studying ways to reduce it. VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford has partnered with the diversity consulting firm Paradigm and LeanIn.org to create a card-based activity that highlights 50 specific examples of gender bias in the workplace. The activity encourages group discussion and problem-solving, then offers research-backed recommendations for reducing bias.  
  • Harvard professor Iris Bohnet and her colleagues discovered that gender bias is reduced when hiring and promotion decisions are made by considering several candidates at the same time, what they call “bundle decisions”.
  • One of the biggest rays of hope is that Melinda Gates has just pledged $1billion to promote gender equality. She believes we are at a moment when extraordinary progress is possible. She has identified 3 strategies for expanding women’s power and influence: 1) dismantle barriers to women’s professional advancement, 2) fast-track women in sectors with outsized impact on our society, like technology, media, and public office, and 3) amplify external pressure from shareholders, consumers, and employees on institutions in need of reform.

I agree with Melinda that the “unprecedented energy and attention around gender equality” at this time gives us reason to be optimistic. And I am grateful to everyone who is continuing to fight the good fight!

Sep 23 19

Prioritizing Connection and Commitment

by Beth

I read David Brooks’ latest book, The Second Mountain, after hearing him talk in Aspen. In it he argues that our society is suffering from a crisis of connection. I agree! Our current cultural values of individual achievement and self-preoccupation are hurting our well-being.

Brooks describes how our society valued conformity and commitment to others during and after World War II. Times of crisis require everyone to work together and sacrifice their needs for the good of society. It was important for people to defer to authority and do their duty in order to protect our country. But after the war this unquestioning loyalty and group conformity became oppressive, eventually leading to the counterculture movement of the 1960s. People began rejecting authority and fought for more personal freedom and individual expression.

Unfortunately, individualism has been taken to the extreme. Our intense focus on the self has led to a sense of isolation and alienation. Our society is facing a loneliness crisis. We don’t know our neighbors. We don’t trust our institutions. Extreme loneliness increases the chance of premature death by 14%. Feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies, lower our immune functioning, and increase depression.

A lack of connection also hurts our sense of meaning in life. One of the strongest sources of meaning comes from our relationships and serving others. A culture of hyper-individualism likely explains why the suicide rate has risen by 30% since 1999. One study found that countries where people reported the lowest sense of meaning had the highest suicide rates.

Brooks believes we need to shift our cultural values from first mountain goals of individual success and personal happiness to second mountain goals of relation, community, and commitment. Everyone’s well-being will improve if we move from self-centered to other-centered, from independence to interdependence. A focus on connection and commitment can help us all live more meaningful lives.

Aug 25 19

Trusting that Change is Good

by Beth

I’m writing this as I sit on my porch, trying to stay out of the way of the movers who are loading our belongings onto a truck. My husband begins his new role as president of Georgia Tech next week.

I feel like I just wrote a blog about our last move and how I tried to stay focused on the positive. I’ve done my best to do the same this time, but some days it’s easier than others. I think moving is like jet lag. No matter how often you experience it, you never get much better at handling it.

This time I’m relying more on trust. Our last moves have been good for me personally and professionally. I trust this one will be no different. I trust that I will also experience the factors that positively impact my well-being in Atlanta.

  • Relationships – I’ve been blessed with amazing friendships everywhere we have lived. My friends in Spain were so supportive when I was struggling to combine work with motherhood, as I mentioned in my TEDx talk. I also made lifelong friends in Arizona and Virginia. The nice thing about moving to Atlanta is that I already have close friends there, including my college roommate and several sorority sisters. I know some people at Georgia Tech and I trust I will make new friends as well.
  • Meaning – I have found meaningful work in all of the places we have lived. I achieved one of my biggest career goals of becoming a tenured professor in a university in Spain. In Arizona I conducted research on women’s careers to help them thrive despite the challenges they face. At George Mason I became a Senior Scholar in the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being where we work to improve the well-being of students, faculty, and staff. I also pursued various projects to promote well-being in the workplace. I trust I will find opportunities in Atlanta to use my knowledge and experience to continue to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives.
  • Growth – The relationships I have made and the work opportunities I have had in Spain, Arizona, and Virginia have all helped me to learn and grow. I’m a very different person today than I was when I moved from Atlanta to Madrid 24 years ago. I trust the experiences I’ll have when I move back to Atlanta will allow me to continue to evolve.

I look forward to returning to Georgia Tech, where I met my husband and we began our great adventure together. As with all moves, I’m experiencing a mix of stress, excitement, and sadness. But I have learned that embracing the full range of emotions is good for my well-being. So I’ll smile through the tears and feel grateful for all of the wonderful experiences I have had so far. And I trust that the good times will continue!

Jul 10 19

From Aspen with Love

by Beth

I recently attended the Aspen Ideas Festival. It’s a weeklong event featuring discussions of politics and economics, the environment, technology, science, health, education, and the arts. I learned a lot about a lot of different things, but what struck me most was how often love was mentioned.

Musician and actor Common talked about his memoir, Let Love Have the Last Word. He believes “love is the most powerful force on the planet and the way you love determines who you are and how you experience life.” He sees love as the path to heal our society that has become fractured under issues of race and politics. He urged us all to love people who are different from us and who think differently.

Arthur Brooks also spoke about love. Brooks led the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, for the past decade. He has written many books, including Love Your Enemies. He explained how people have a tendency to view those they disagree with as stupid and evil. This prevents us from being open to hearing different points of view. Brooks challenged us to respond to contempt with love, saying it can change your heart and might change the other person’s heart, too. He went on to say love is not a feeling, but an act of will.

Other talks weren’t directly about love, but they did emphasize the importance of caring about others. David Brooks, the political and cultural commentator, spoke about his recent book, The Second Mountain. In it he argues that true joy comes from a life of commitment to others. Tara Westover, who wrote Educated, said she believes education is less about knowing more than someone and more about really knowing someone who is not like you. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the authors of the Green New Deal, explained that the purpose of the proposal is to make sure certain groups don’t suffer as we move to new sources of energy.

In a country that is facing a loneliness epidemic and extreme levels of political divisiveness, perhaps it isn’t surprising to see some people turning to love as the answer. My hope is that more and more people choose to let love have the last word.

Jun 10 19

A Powerful Path to Self-Control

by Beth

Self-control is about sacrificing something now in order to gain something in the future. The ability to resist temptation is essential for success. Typical suggestions for increasing self-control include relying on will-power, executive functioning, or reasoning. As you may have realized, these don’t always work.

In his book, Emotional Success, David DeSteno explains why gratitude, compassion, and pride are a much better path for achieving long-term goals. These prosocial emotions originally helped humans build lasting relationships, which were critical for survival. Strengthening relationships often requires a willingness to sacrifice for others. You don’t watch the French Open final because your neighbor needs help moving furniture. You don’t play golf on Saturday because your wife wants to visit relatives.

DeSteno’s research showed that people who felt grateful were more willing to overcome selfish temptations in order to strengthen relationships over the long run. He also found that students who treated themselves with self-compassion spent 30% more time studying for the GRE compared to a control group. Likewise, people who were proud of their abilities devoted 40% more time to building their skills than those who weren’t.

The key to self-control is to use these prosocial emotions with respect to the relationship you have with your future self. Feeling grateful, compassionate towards yourself, and proud of your accomplishments increases the value of future goals, which motivates you to resist temptation and persevere. It’s easier to pass on the chocolate cake when you feel grateful for your health, want your future self to be healthy, and know you will feel proud of yourself for saying no.

Generating positive emotions isn’t as hard as exercising will-power. Keeping a gratitude journal can help you feel more grateful, meditation has been shown to increase compassion, and listing your successes can help you feel pride. And unlike will-power, which is like a muscle that gets tired with use, positive emotions actually get stronger when we use them.

Whatever goals you happen to be pursuing, harnessing the power of prosocial emotions can help you achieve them with greater ease and more enjoyment.