Tag Archives: Positive psychology

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!


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Depression and Anxiety vs. Sorrow and Fear What is means to us.

In a recent discussion with Dr. Steven Brownlow (http://sgbrownlow.com) we discussed the difference between depression vs. sorrow and anxiety vs. fear. The thoughts were important and worthwhile sharing. The distinctions are not really clear to many folk, and can be really important when dealing with these emotions either in yourself or in loved ones.
The distinction can be especially important when you seek to set emotional goals for yourself. The type of work you need to do and what you can expect to achieve can be significantly different depending on what type of emotion you are actually experiencing.

While I have already blogged about the different types of depression and how one might deal with a non-clinical depression in a positive manner, in this blog I will use the term in a technical manner and not as the popular term. That will help us to see some characteristics of the clinical state that is not in the popular usage of the word “Depression.”

Depression and anxiety are the subjects of psychotherapy. One way of defining psychotherapy is that the therapist attempts to have the client’s subjective view of reality coincide with the objective view. When a person is clinically depressed (for purposes of this blog at least) one can say that the person feels sad, lacks motivation, etc., and attributes those feelings to circumstances that are not based in reality. He or she sees the world as a hostile or grim place and feels hopeless and helpless as a result.

Clinical anxiety has a similar dynamic. A person feels anxious because of a subjective perception that does not reflect the objective reality. One is afraid of spiders even though the spiders one sees are not dangerous. A person can suffer from overwhelming anxiety due to a trauma that happened in the past, even though it cannot happen in present circumstance. Such is the dynamic in PTSD, for example. A soldier will play out his or her anxiety at home far from the battlefield. And the anxiety might pervade his or her whole world-view. Now, you will argue that there is a real fear here and the behavior is caused by a real fear. That is true. But the fear is fueled and constructed from an anxiety that is based in an unrealistic, subjective perception and not objective reality.

Sorrow and fear might feel bad but they are positive emotions. Just like pain is not something we like, but without pain we would be in much greater trouble. We would not know when there is some damage to our bodies if we did not feel pain.

Sorrow is the real emotional pain that results from loss. Not a threatened loss. Real loss. Loss of anything can cause sorrow, and that is a natural and positive emotion. It tells us that we need to reevaluate our relationship with the object of the loss and refine our perspective. It could be the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or loss of an ability. We still need to go on living and learn how to live without that thing we lost. This is the realm of coaching. It is not a pathology. It is not illness. It is a healthy process that we sometimes need help in order to redefine ourselves and set new goals for new levels of fulfillment, accomplishment and flourishing.

Fear, when it is based in reality, is also positive. It tells us that we need to prepare ourselves for possible impending danger. We need to muster up our innate strengths, set strategies and use our skills to deal with whatever it is that poses a threat. It is obviously very important, although it should not overpower the rest of our abilities. In our society we are not to be afraid, but it makes more sense to embrace the fear and the power it gives us to find extra strength to initiative to meet the oncoming challenge. Positive psychology coaching can give us the tools to meet such challenges by focusing on global strengths or higher values, or inner commitment. These are the tools that every healthy person who finds the power to meet scary situations uses, but many of us are not able to consistently muster up these potentials.

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Not Common Cold Depression

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Like all psychiatric diagnoses, depression is defined by its symptoms. Other illnesses are usually defined by the cause. A sore throat is a symptom while strep throat is a disease. Once we realize that depression is a symptom we notice that it is a symptom of numerous conditions.

Depression can be a symptom of thyroid disfunction. We know of SAD which is caused by lack of sunlight. There is post-partum depression. Also, since depressive symptoms are more common in women of childbearing years there seems to be something in thay population that preciptates those symptoms. The same is true for men with sexual dysfuntions.

In all of the above mentioned groups most people never have serious problems. They are resilient. The big question is how to increase resilence. Most psychologist can tell you how to combat depressive thoughts when they invade your mind but only recently have researchers and clinicians focused on prevention of depressive habits.

There are a number of useful habits. One well known exercise (mentioned by Martin Seligman in his new book, “Flourish”) is to write down your daily accomplishments. This type of journal has been shown to produce results in as little as four days. I have seen it work with true skeptics. It works because it forces us to think about what we have done well. And although many of us have been taught that complimenting ourselves is immodest and prideful, we all feel good with a job well done.

The resulting good feelings produce endorphins in the brain which ward off depressive symptoms. It allows you to rejuvenate your immune system and reduce actual stress. And it is more efficient than pleasuable distractions like watching a movie or having a good meal (which is also beneficial.)

This works for most people when they are overwhelmed but it is debatable that they are depressed. People who have too much stress. When responsibilies compete for your attention and you feel that if you do not give your all then things will fall apart.

Try it. You’ll like it.

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