Category Archives: Positive Psychology

Can I be Positive?

All you need is by Ari Hahn
All you need is, a photo by Ari Hahn on Flickr.

People who live with mental illness, whether it is themselves or a loved one, love with too much stress and negative emotions. Much has been written about stress and certainly everybody has heard of the dangers of being over stressed.

Most medical professionals and psychotherapists work under the assumption that of you get rid of the negative in your life you will fill up your life with positive. People want to be happy and to flourish so if we remove the obstacles you will seek, find and fill your life with good healthy emotions and activities. Unfortunately, we see that it doesn’t work that way. It would if, for instance, love and fear were opposite ends of a real continuum. But if they were, you couldn’t both love and fear the same person at the same time. I sure you know of that possibility.

Science tells us that negative emotions help us focus on protection. If you are walking down a dark city street and a bunch of rowdy teenage boys come up behind you, you might get anxious or afraid. Your muscles tense, your heart beats harder, you listen more carefully, etc. Your only thought is how to stay safe.

If your kid is beginning to act out, your whole being focuses on what needs to be done to get through this episode. Hypervigilance reigns as you watch for signs that hospitalization might be needed. You ignore other tasks that seemed important just a short while ago. You feel all sorts of negative emotions and they actually can help you (in some ways) keep you and your family safe.

But what about positive emotions? How do they work? How do they effect our thinking and actions?

Positive emotions and positive interactions tend to move us in an opposite direction. When we engage in positivity our minds and hearts open up to new possibilities. Emotions like joy, gratitude, hope, pride and love help us feel expansive and we are able to be more creative. We build stronger relationships and live healthier lives. Not because of the lack of stress but because the positive emotions actually enhance these processes in our brains.

However, people do not automatically move into the positivity mode. If you have been overwhelmed with problems you might be stuck in a negativity rut. The real good news is that we all can train ourselves to cultivate feelings of joy, gratitude, awe, serenity, hope and love. If you can find even a few moments of these feelings then those moments are the seeds of a flourishing life. And there is research to show that for many people nurturing those seeds can be just as effective as antidepressants. With no side effects.

Some people need a personal coach. A positivity trainer. A professional who can teach you to refocus and cherish the good feelings through overwhelming times. I cannot think of a better investment.


Leave a comment

Filed under Coaching, Love, Positive Psychology, PTSD

A Start on the Path to Positivity

In my last post I proposed that people suffering from complex PTSD can improve their lives by increasing positivity. Although many people see this possibility, others feel so overwhelmed that they feel it impossible. While that is the nature of C-PTSD, I have worked with these people to overcome the obstacles and progress on the strive to thrive highway.

There are many tools and techniques that have been developed by positive psychologists in the past ten years. Although I have found them to parallel techniques that have been around for thousands of years, these new formulations are based on research and fit well into our modern perspectives. One powerful and simple exercise is the “Gratitude Journal.”

The Gratitude Journal is really a very simple exercise. You set aside ten minutes at the end of the day to write in a journal three things that occurred that day that engendered some level of gratitude. Then add on to that some reason for why it happened. The events can big big or small, significant or humble, it makes no difference. Anything from, “my daughter gave birth to a healthy child,” to “a lady was nice to me while in line at the supermarket.” When citing a reason, it needs to be anything that makes sense to you. If you do this for three weeks you will almost certainly see a positive change in your life.

Some people claim it is difficult to find things to be grateful for. Of course, that’s true. But not because there aren’t reasons to be grateful. It is because you are not practiced at thinking positive. And while there are really good reasons for that, it is the lack of practice that keeps your mood negative. The purpose of keeping a Gratitude Journal is to train your mind and heart to be more open to positivity. As you struggle to find events to be thankful for you are creating neural paths of positivity in your brain. The more of positivity paths up there, the better you feel.

I have done this myself and with dozens of other people. A few people need help to begin the habit of finding and expressing gratitude. With even slight help everybody can find positive points to be thankful for. And every person who I know that has completed even a few weeks of this journal has sung the benefits.

Some people ask: how long do I have to keep this journal? Remember that the goal is to train your mind in the positive direction. So the schedule would be similar to other training endeavors. At first it is important to work on it on a daily basis. But once you’ve gained the skill, only maintenance is needed. That means only two or three times a week. On the other hand, you will find that it will become an enjoyable activity.

Hey, a healthful activity that’s enjoyable. We can all use that!

Leave a comment

Filed under Coaching, Positive Psychology, PTSD

Seven Steps for a Great Morning

I pride myself in being both a scientifically-based psychologist and a very religious person. This combination has provided me with some huge, practical insights into improving my life. I have found it wonderfully rewarding when I realized how the science of psychology and the traditions I have received from my religion work together to make meaning and purpose. I truly believe that there are lessons here that every human being on the face of the globe can apply benefit from.


Many people will readily agree that that first hour of two of the morning will set the tone for much of the rest of the day. If you implement these guidelines I can assure you that within two or three weeks you will feel a significant improvement. There are seven steps that can make a significant improvement in your life.


A great morning starts just before you go to sleep. It is really difficult to have a great morning if you haven’t started the night before. There are two exercises which are really important before retiring at night. While I learned of these from religious writings dating back hundreds of years, they’ve been given specific names and forms to the modern science of positive psychology.


The first one is called the “Gratitude Journal.” Every night, at the beginning of my bedtime routine, I write in a journal three things that happened during the course of the day that I am thankful for. Next to each item I write some reason that the event occurred. It makes no difference whether it is a big and important event in your life or is a minor one. Also, it makes no difference whether or not the reason that it happened is a logical reason or one that other people would understand. What is important is that it makes sense to me.


Many people who start with a gratitude journal find it difficult at first. If this happens to you, be persistent. It just means that you are training your mind to focus on positive and happy events. Everybody that I have worked with has gotten the hang of it within a week or two.


The second step could be called “the forgiveness journal.” According to my religious tradition, I express my forgiveness to people who have wronged me immediately prior to going to sleep. The idea is to end the day with a clean heart. In positive psychology terms, is another portion of a journal in which you can note three people who you can forgive for something that occurred to you either today or prior to today. I have found this to be occasionally pretty tricky. Too many people think that they must start forgiving others for major wrongs or major hurts. It is important to start by forgiving people for things that you’re absolutely ready to forgive them for. Forgive your child for throwing a tantrum in the supermarket. Forgive your mother for reminding you too many times to do something or another. Way down the road you will be able to forgive your big brother for bullying you when you were 12 years old.


The third step in preparation for wonderful morning is to go to sleep with enough time to wake up rested. (That is a skill that needs to be discussed in a separate blog post.)


Step number four for a great morning actually occurs in the morning. Wake up early enough to get everything done even when things go wrong. I always wake up with enough time to avoid any stress. I know plenty of people who get out of the house in 10 or 15 min. I give myself a minimum of one hour. You might not need that much time. But it is important to budget enough time for emergencies.


Step number five is to dedicate a minimum of 15 minutes to some spiritual activity. I will spend a minimum of 30 minutes in prayer. On a good day, I can spend 20 minutes in meditation and 45 minutes in prayer. This sets the foundation and perspective for all of the activities for the rest of the day. If I am able to do this properly, I will be able to use just a few minutes of reflection later on to refocus and to gain proper perspective. In positive psychology terms, this is called giving meaning to your life. This foundation can be found in humanistic psychology and in 12 step programs, as well as almost all religious traditions.


Step number six is to put on a positive intellectual armor on before going out into the world. Read something positive. It seems that thousands of people read quotes from famous people. I typically learn a portion of the Bible, say a few chapters of Psalms, and learned some Chasidic philosophy. While the most proper suggestion is to do this prior to leaving your home, I must admit that most of the days of the week I will implement this stage on the train to work. With consistent effort you can learn to use some concentration while doing this reading and it will work wonders.


Step number seven is relatively easy. Prior to immersing yourself into the trials and tribulations of your daily grind, pull out your gratitude journal and read your prior entries. That is really good way to put yourself in a frame of mind to meet the challenges that inevitably appear.

Leave a comment

Filed under Coaching, Love, Positive Psychology

How to Love Almost Anybody

Think that somebody who you really don’t like, but you need to spend an awful lot of time with that person. Is there any way possible to get to actually like him or her?

Or maybe there’s somebody in your life who you used to love her very much but that love is faded and that saddens you. Do you wonder if there’s any way to reconstruct the love and build a new edifice?

I was thinking about these questions last week while teaching humanistic psychology and the concepts taught by Carl Rogers as part of his client centered psychotherapy. It disturbs me to think that although the tools that Carl Rogers taught and made available to the counseling or psychotherapeutic community are really very efficient tools, are they available and/or appropriate for the average person? Somehow I knew that they had to be, but I didn’t get an answer until Saturday afternoon when I read the words written 2000 years ago by the sages of the Mishnah. I will explain that later.

There are three conditions necessary for building a really good relationship. The first one is called, “unconditional positive regard.” This means that you will accept the other person as a human being with unique values and unique goals. As professionals we are taught not to impose our own world views, perspectives, or values on the people we are working with. Ken lay people do that? I certainly believe so. The big question is: what practical steps are needed to achieve it?

The second condition is called, “empathy.” I think it goes without saying that any human being can cultivate empathy. The challenge for most people is to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. If a person shares with you his or her hard times or difficult feelings that may make you feel bad. You will then be sympathetic. That sympathy comes because you feel bad about what that other person has gone through. It derives from your own feelings and not from the feelings of the other person. So let’s say, for instance, you see a young woman with two-year-old twins and an infant all eligible stroller struggling to get her children into her car just as it is starting to rain and she has bags of groceries along with her. You look at her and you feel bad for her. You feel sympathy for her. You go over to her and tell her how big you feel for her predicament. Is it your feelings or her feelings you’re feeling? She turns to you tells you that she doesn’t feel bad at all, on the contrary, she is quite overjoyed. She says that she had a long and hard struggle to have children and it is times like these when she realizes how small the effort really is compared to the struggle it was for to actually have the children. Empathy means that you share the feelings that the other person has. In order to cultivate empathy one must first cultivate the ability to get to know other people. Is this possible for the ordinary layperson to achieve? I certainly believe so. The big question is: what practical steps are needed to achieve it?

The third condition is called, “genuineness.” This means that the person can be open and honest with the other person in the relationship. At first glance this might seem much more basic than the previous two conditions. But in reality I think that this is much more difficult to achieve. But it is far from impossible. In my experience I have seen many nonprofessional people cultivate the quality of genuineness. The big question is: what practical steps are needed in order to achieve it?

There is an ancient book written by the Jewish sages of about 2000 years ago called, “Ethics of the Fathers.” This is a collection of moral statements brought together to teach proper ethical behavior. In the first chapter there is a statement by one of the sages which seems so obvious that one would think it’s completely unnecessary and superfluous to be included in this collection. He says, “and judge every person favorably.” When you look at this statement in its original language, Hebrew, something very curious becomes apparent. The word for “every person” does not actually mean every person but it means, “all of the person.” What this sage is telling us is that if you are able to judge all of the person, you would certainly judge that person favorably. Aha! This gave me the insight into the practical steps one needs to take in order to achieve the ability to absolutely accept and possibly love any particular person.

As you strive to get to know another person on a deeper and deeper level you get to appreciate that person to a greater and greater extent. When you ask your friend, lover, or acquaintance why he or she did something or how they were feeling about something you get to know the person on a level that was not previously experienced. The more you learn about your friends’ reasons, feelings, and motivations the more you will appreciate that person for who he or she is.

Be genuinely concerned and curious about your friends’ reasons, feelings, then motivations and your relationship will surely be able to get to that level that can make everybody feel good.

Leave a comment

Filed under Coaching, Love, Positive Psychology, Relationships

Anger Management is stupid. Better to Avoid Anger

Anger and Stress. Most of us suffer from these two maladies, especially if we are blessed with families that struggle with special challenges like mental illness of a member that is an ex-abused person. Last week I attended a family support group. One member shared a list of 100 ways of coping with stress and anger.  I looked over it and it was quite impressive. Many of the items we would think of without the list, and many were very clever. It included things like taking a bath, deep breathing, taking a walk, singing a song, dancing in the living room, etc. I’ve used some of those strategies, and some work really well for me. Bubble baths don’t help me at all, but dancing like a teenager (as long as nobody it there to laugh at me) works really well.

But when you get these suggestions you realize that they are all useful only after you are stressed out or angry. They can help you manage the stress or anger, but do little to help you prevent losing it in the first place. If your spouse had a hard day and complained about you for no good reason, you might just flip. If he or she was really bent out of shape and insulted you or worse, it is possible that the stress and anger can become unmanageable. After you are ready to strangle somebody it can you really turn on the music and just dance?

What we need is some antidote to reduce the stress and anger before it gets too much. Some way that we can feel that it really is not so bad to begin with.

Impossible, you say. I would think the same way. But my eldest daughter is in this matter almost opposite from me. She never seems stressed out. She takes everything easy. I have not seen her act angry since she was a teenager. If she were not my own daughter I would be terribly jealous. But instead I realize that I need to learn from her.

But I am not like her. So I researched and learned from others also. I found that there is actually ways to reduce the anger before it happens.  No guarantees. Not always. But ways to make a significant change in your life and the lives of the people around you.

First let’s understand what anger is. Anger occurs when somebody or something either harms us, threatens to harm us, or prevent us from getting something we need or want. When the car in front of us keeps cutting us off many of us get angry. On the other hand, if we’ve had a hard day and come home to the 7 year old’s shoes in the living room, and we trip on them, we can get angry. Why? Because we feel like that behavior almost hurt us. Or if we are a bit more sensitive, we feel like we are losing control of our seven year old, or of the way we want our home to be. No matter how you cut it, though, we feel somehow threatened by the other person, either physically or psychologically.

The next step (which happens all too fast) is that we think something negative about the person who is threatening us. “That no- good SOB, why does he always DO THAT” “Jimmy, how many times do I have to tell you to put away your shoes? Can’t you learn that simple thing?” These thoughts are what solidifies and crystallizes the emotion into real anger. It takes about 1/3 of a second to move from the feeling to the thought. If we can hijack this process in less than 1/3 of a second, we can avoid the anger.

In order to do that we need to identify an emotion that can replace the anger. What is the opposite of anger? It is not calmness. That is just the disappearance of anger. The one emotion that is absolutely incompatible with anger is compassion. If a person feels compassion for another then it is impossible to feel anger.

Compassion and anger are not really so different. When you are angry at somebody you focus on that person’s faults. “She is so stupid, I can’t stand her! If she comes here again I will tell her to leave.” With compassion we also focus on the person’s faults. “She is so stupid, I feel sorry for her. If she comes here again I will make sure she feels better.”

What about other situations? That ridiculous driver? “That guy really has a problem. I can’t get involved in his problems, so I’ll steer clear of him.” “Jimmy is just a seven year old.  He can’t remember to put his shoes away. I can’t hurt him by yelling at him, poor kid.”

Training yourself is conceptually easy, but it takes a lot of practice. You need to practice coming up with compassionate explanations for other people’s bad behavior on a regular basis. Keep a compassion journal. Set ten minutes every day to think of those stupid things that bothered you during the day and write down how you can feel sorry for the person who displayed the stupidity or bad behavior. It may not be easy at first, but it is the practice that will reap the rewards.

If you keep it up for about two weeks (or less) you will begin to try to think compassionately about people as soon as they do things that are hurtful. Soon after that you will find that you can begin to feel sorry for the other person within that 1/3 window and the anger that was harming yourself will not be there to manage.


Filed under Coaching, emotional regulation, Positive Psychology

The most basic ingredient for great relationships. Proven scientifically, endorsed by God.

In Martin Selgiman’s new book, Flourish, he writes of a wonderful paradigm to increase well being. In my other blog I am summarizing and commenting on each chapter. But in chapter four there is a concept that is fantastically applicable and useful for every person on this planet. So I am copying much of that posting here.

While most of this chapter outlines the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program at Penn State there are a few really important concepts and ideas that both practical and enlightening. The first has been a favorite of mine for about 25 years. That, in spite of the fact that in psychology it has not been around for more than a few short years. I’ll explain in a bit.

Seligman calls it the “Losada ratio” named after the fellow named Marcel Losada who “discovered” it. Losada looked at communications in companies and found that those firms that had a ratio of better than 2.9:1 of positive to negative statement flourished and those with less withered. Also above 13:1 faltered since the positive seemed more like fluff than substance. Seligman cites that well known (at least amongst marriage counselors) study by John Gottman that a strong marriage is reliably measured by the ratio of positive interaction to negative ones. Generally, if you want to voice any criticism in a relationship you need to have at least five times the amount of positives to each negative.

I have been using this idea for decades in my practice. I’ve often cited Gottman but I learned it when I was first married. One Rabbi told me that I should not consider my wife as more loving than G-d. “Well, OK,” I replied, “What lesson are you trying to tell me now?” “In the Jewish prayer we ask for all sorts of things. But we don’t ask until we first give at least three prayers of praise, and don’t leave until we give at least three prayers of thanks. Wouldn’t one be enough? No. It is to teach us that if you even want to ask or criticize, you must first give at least three times as much praise and thanks, even to people, especially your wife.”

If you think about it, universal human wisdom did not start with psychology. Psychology is just quantifying it.

So the Losada ratio is one great concept that we can apply today. And he tells us stories about people applying it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Coaching, Positive Psychology

Tapping into the Daydreaming Scene

Do you day dream too much? Or maybe even not enough? How much do people daydream anyway?

Daydreaming has been terribly maligned. In grade school the teachers would call my best friend “the wonder boy” meaning he always seems to wondering about things and not paying attention. If we are caught daydreaming often at work we can get into deep ____.

But daydreaming is actually very helpful. Some research has noted that we should be daydreaming up to 30% of our waking hours. That seems like quite a lot. I suppose it is more important when and where you do it. We do spend a lot of time in places and situations that we are not in close communications with others. So why not? Go for it.

Day dreaming serves a number of purposes. First, as a pleasant “mini-vacation.” We can place ourselves in any situation and in any location. As you probably know, that not only sounds like fun, but it can really be fun.  But fun is not necessarily the only benefit. Actually there are some real value we can reap from our daydreaming. If we keep it realistic we can develop tentative plans that are slightly beyond creative. It can enable us to achieve way more than our rational minds would ever let us. For some of us that idea of staying somewhat realistic can take practice, but it is still fun. And for some of us that pushing the envelope is very entertaining.

We often daydream about our own character. We think of who we are and who we would really like to be. This is like a wonderful positive psychology exercise.  This is actually a way of constructively tapping into your daydreaming skills.

Let you mind wander to focus on who you could really be if you had the power to change yourself over the next 5 or 10 years. Don’t think about what you Momma told you, but focus on who you can become and be closer to your real self. As you think about it, start to imagine real life situations and how you would want to deal with them if you only could do it in your best way possible. You can convince yourself in these daydreams that you have the power to become your ideal self.

But the fact is that you do have the power to change yourself. It takes a bit of concentrated thought of how you can be the best person you are inside. After the daydreaming, if you can write down as much as possible of that possible, ideal self it will become an actual living work in progress.  – No. You will become that actual living work in progress.

If you are a coach you can do this with your clients and help them focus on their positive and ideal selves. Help them write down as much details of their ideal lives and to judge how much of that ideal life is influenced by internal values or something they are picking up from someone else’s values. Discuss it. I’m sure you can do the job well.

Leave a comment

Filed under Coaching, Positive Psychology