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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.

May 13 19

Together We Can

by Beth

The well-being of our planet has a direct impact on our own well-being. Climate change is bad for our physical and mental health. The good news is there are hundreds of small things that we can do help our planet by living more sustainably.

Many of these changes are really easy, yet people don’t take action because they believe one person can’t make a meaningful difference. They are mistaken. While it is true that companies and government policies must change in order to address our climate crisis, it is also the case that large-scale movements often start with changes in individual attitudes and behaviors.

When people become concerned enough about an issue to take action, their actions influence those around them. Social norms are powerful. We don’t run when we see smoke, we run when we see others running. In one study people who were told that 30% of Americans had recently started eating less meat were twice as likely to order a meatless lunch. The odds that someone will buy solar panels for their home increase for each house in their neighborhood that has solar panels.

As more and more people choose to live sustainably, more and more will do the same. This will lead to a tipping point where there is so much demand for clean energy, electric cars, organic food, eco-friendly products and packaging, etc. that companies will have to respond. And candidates who want to get elected will have to support environmental policies.

I urge you to take action and to share what you are doing with others. Here are some ideas to get you started. It takes individuals taking action to start a movement. Let’s make living sustainably as common as wearing your seat belt.

Together we can create a ripple effect that transforms the world!

Apr 22 19

On Earth Day, Reasons for Hope

by Beth

A joint program between George Mason and Yale universities has been surveying Americans’ perception of climate change since 2008. The latest poll shows that more people than ever are worried about global warming. The percentage of people who reported being “very worried” rose from 21 to 29 percent in the last year. This is most likely because climate change is no longer a distant threat. It’s happening right now. More and more people are being negatively affected by extreme temperatures, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires.

The good news is that we can work together to reduce the impacts of climate change. On this Earth Day, I am hopeful because there are so many collective efforts moving us in a positive direction.

  • In 2018 we saw the largest increase in global renewable energy capacity ever. It’s now cheaper to build wind and solar projects than it is to operate 74% of existing coal plants. 100 U.S. cities have committed to transitioning entirely to renewables and 3,500 organizations have pledged to stand by the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • People are choosing to eat less meat. Over 39% of Americans say they are trying to eat more plant-based foods. Many NBA athletes and NFL players are following primarily plant-based diets.
  • More people are avoiding single-use plastics. Over 300 cities in the U.S. have banned plastic bags and 10 states have enacted plastic bag legislation. More than 500 organizations around the world have joined the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Here is a list of actions that are being taken around the world to reduce plastic pollution.
  • The minimalist movement is growing. The increasing number of blogs, books, and Netflix shows about the advantages of owning less reflects a shift in mindset. More people are realizing that happiness and fulfillment can’t be found from their possessions and that less consumption preserves earth’s natural resources.

The sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves is a powerful way to experience meaning. It gives us a more purpose-driven life. We are living at a time when there is a real need for action. That means we have a unique opportunity to make a significant difference in our world, to change our behaviors in ways that help the Earth.

I encourage you to think about small changes you could make to live more sustainably. Find something you care about, like healthy eating or using less energy or buying products with nontoxic chemicals, and start there. Tell others what you are doing. Together we can shape a better future.

Mar 21 19

Help the Environment to Boost Your Well-Being

by Beth

Some of the things I’ve been doing for my “year of less” have not only been making me happier, but they are also giving me a greater sense of meaning. That’s because they are good for my well-being and also for the environment.

Owning fewer things means less clutter, which has been associated with less stress. It also means you have more time (since you have fewer things to clean, organize, and maintain) and more money to spend in ways that positively impact your well-being, like sharing experiences with friends and family.

Owning less means buying less, which benefits the environment. Consumerism increases pollution, depletes natural resources, and adds more waste to landfills. So instead of dropping by TJ Maxx when I’m out and have some spare time, I head home and use that time to read or meditate or walk the dog. Any of these options is better for my well-being and I consume less because I likely would have bought something that I didn’t need.

What I eat impacts my well-being and the planet. Eating less meat is healthier. It has been associated with lower weight and lower risks of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

It is also good for the environment. According to Colin Beavan, author of How to be Alive, “One day of eating only plants saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, and 20 pounds of CO2 equivalent.” I try to eat a plant-based meal most days for lunch and for dinner I cook mainly fish, vegetables, legumes, and sometimes chicken. Doing this makes me feel good and gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I am also doing good.

Our lives are meaningful when we feel that we are making a positive difference. Helping others is one of the most powerful ways to experience meaning. And what better way to help others than to adopt behaviors that will positively impact future generations!

Feb 12 19

Choosing “Less but Better”

by Beth

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about choosing one word or idea as a theme for the year. This year my word is “less”. Instead of making a list of all the things I intended to do, I resolved to dedicate 2019 to choosing less.

I’ve always appreciated simplicity. I really do believe that less is better! So here are some of the things on my 2019 list of less:

  • Owning less. Every February I do spring cleaning. I never understood why people would want to be cleaning out their closets on a beautiful spring day! I wrote a blog in 2012 about the joy of de-cluttering. This was long before I learned about the KonMari method, but this year I’m following Marie Kondo’s suggestion to consider whether my possessions spark joy. My criteria for keeping something used to be whether I might need it someday. Considering how much I really like it has made it a lot easier to get rid of things.
  • Doing less. I used to love crossing things off my to-do-list. The more I did each day the better I felt. Well those times are over! This year I’m embracing Essentialism: the pursuit of less but better. Instead of trying to get more done, I’m focusing on doing what really matters. Each day I make sure I have time to go for a long walk, meditate, or connect with someone I care about. Like only keeping things that bring me joy, I’m deliberately choosing to eliminate nonessentials so I can work on projects that inspire me.
  • Using less plastic. I was so moved by the National Geographic issue “Planet or Plastic” that I took the pledge to use less plastic. I bought Etee wraps to use instead of saran wrap, I never use straws, I rarely drink from plastic bottles, and I don’t use lids. Not using lids means you don’t need straws, but do be careful when riding in the car! All of these are small things, but each time I make a choice not to use plastic I feel I’m doing good. 
  • Eating less sugar. Over a decade ago I started eating fewer bad carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, and potatoes. The past couple of years I’ve made a point of eating less red meat. My focus this year is sugar. I know, my husband often reminds me that sugar is a carbohydrate, but it was so hard to eat less of my beloved bread and potatoes that I conveniently excluded candy and desserts from the category. This year I’m trying my best to eat less sugar.

What about you? Want to join me in embracing less but better? Maybe you’d like to spend less time scrolling through social media or in meetings that aren’t necessary. Where could choosing less make a positive difference in your life?

Jan 21 19

Deep Work for Well-Being

by Beth

In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task is an essential skill for success. I would add that deep work is also a skill that can build greater well-being.

Deep work includes things like reading, writing, and thinking. Shallow work refers to non-cognitively demanding tasks that can be done while distracted, like answering emails or formatting documents.

Deep work is linked to well-being through its impact on learning, flow, and meaningful work.

Learning – Many models of well-being include either learning or growing as key factors for thriving. Learning exposes us to new ideas and helps us stay curious. It also gives us a sense of accomplishment and boosts our self-confidence. People who keeping learning throughout their lives have greater ability to cope with stress and report more feelings of hope and purpose.

Flow – When we experience flow, we lose our sense of self, forgetting about our worries and concerns, our sense of time is distorted, the experience is intrinsically rewarding, and our performance soars. Athletes describe it as being “in the zone”. They are achieving personal bests, yet their performance feels effortless.

Meaningful work – Having a sense that your life is meaningful is one of the most important factors for well-being. People who have meaning in their lives are happier and are more engaged in their work. They experience less stress, anxiety, and depression. Making progress on meaningful goals that are important, but not urgent often requires deep work.

Unfortunately, the ability to do deep work is a rare skill today. Most of us go through our lives in a state of continuous partial attention. Technology prevents us from focusing. One of Newport’s tips for deep work is to schedule blocks of hard but important intellectual work on your calendar. You should include where and how long you will work. Ninety minutes is a good goal. Eliminating distractions like email and social media is also key. Close your email, put your phone away, and turn off notifications.

Deep work requires discipline, but it can significantly impact your success and well-being. Many leaders, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, follow the 5-hour rule, dedicating 5 hours a week for deliberate learning. What about you? Do you schedule time to focus on meaningful work that lets you experience flow and continue to learn and grow? Why not start now?

Dec 12 18

How Meaning and Purpose Differ

by Beth

Meaning in life is a critical component of well-being. Research has made this very clear. What isn’t as clear is exactly what meaning is and how we can build a more meaningful life. Fortunately, research is converging on some answers.

Michael Steger is a psychologist who has dedicated his work to the topic of meaning in life. He explains that meaning comes from reflectively interpreting your life and that there are three dimensions you can reflect upon: 1) sense of coherence, 2) purpose in life, and 3) significance.  

Coherence is interpreting your life in a way that makes sense. You understand who you are and how you fit into the world. Purpose is an overarching aim for your life. It gives you goals and a sense of direction. Significance is the feeling that your life matters because it is worthwhile or valuable. You can think of coherence as being a cognitive dimension of meaning in life, purpose as motivational, and significance as evaluative.

Sources of meaning are different from these three dimensions through which we experience meaning. Sources of meaning are what impact these dimensions. Meaning in life is very personal and we draw meaning from different sources. Each of us has had different experiences that we need to make sense of in our own ways. What gives me a sense of significance will be different from what you find to be worthwhile. You might have a clear purpose that contributes to your sense of meaning, while I may experience meaning through my relationships, my spirituality, or living authentically.

Meaning in life is a broader concept than purpose. Having a purpose can enhance your sense of meaning, but you don’t have to have a single, all-encompassing purpose in order to experience meaning. It is more likely that you have multiple, small scale purposes or goals that change over time. So don’t worry if you haven’t “found your purpose”. There are many other ways to have a meaningful life.

The key is to make more of the moments in your life matter. Spend time learning and growing in order to realize your potential. Nurture your relationships. Find ways to be of service to others. What will you do to make life more meaningful in the coming year?