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By David St. George -

Airplane screensaver

Human flourishing requires full awareness and aggressive agency to design and appreciate a meaningful life. But in our world of increasing distraction, confusing sensory assault, and cultural memes which demand achievement at any cost, we may instead take refuge from fully engaged living. Often this is in what Carr calls the shallows of technological distraction. Or it might be the comfortable human autopilot state of habitual activity. Quite often we disengage into a mind-wandering screensaver mode. Notice our tendency to communicate these less-than-human states with technological terminology.

If we embrace the largest viewpoint, each of us is really the lucky genetic survivor of generations of incremental optimization on this planet over millions of years. Unfortunately, we continue to operate within this evolutionary framework. The thinly veiled cultural mantra to “consume, conquer, and copulate” determines how we all live on this planet. It can drive us through life in a fairly automatic trance. Is it surprising that 2/3 of people are disengaged in their jobs and 15% actually hate the work they do every day, according to Burnett and colleagues? We don’t design and decide how to live; we are largely driven.

Each of our physical brains contain the vestigial layers of this historic journey from reptile functioning to mammal and also from primate to fully human. All these parts are still physically present in every one of us. But to fully experience life on this planet, we need to rise above these powerful cultural and genetic drivers to fully embrace our uniquely human brain functions. We need to consciously design our own personal life experiences and embrace “cooperation, creativity and compassion” if we are to grow and fully flourish, individually and together.

Life as a Pilot

My experience in life has mostly involved teaching and piloting a variety of aircraft all over the United States. This has been a wonderful learning opportunity. Aviation uses some fantastic psychological tools that can be highly useful for everyone in everyday life. These concepts behind these tools enable full human functioning and aggressive agency. Situational awareness and pilot in command authority when applied to daily life experiences are the essence of knowing exactly where you are in time and space and then taking charge and designing optimal outcomes. Metacognitive monitoring is a method of keeping track of rapidly evolving situations in high-stakes environments and assuring a successful outcome. Metacognitive monitoring also calibrates our level of engagement and awareness as we are busy in life. Are we actively piloting or are we flying on autopilot?

Flight control unit – autopilot

To flourish fully, one vital system we must monitor is our human autopilot. Just as in flying, the dual-processor brain theory proposed by Reyna and Brainerd posits both “reflective, thoughtful manual control” and autopilot as separate modes of operation during daily life. Autopilot is how we can famously drive to our destination in a car without remembering anything about the trip, forgetting to stop at the store. Rooted deeply in our evolutionary history, this ability to operate automatically can unfortunately take over and operate our entire life if we are not vigilant. Human autopilot, also called implicit knowledge with habitual scripts and schema is internal and largely invisible during operation. Theories vary as to how much daily life is spent just running scripts, but this mode of operation definitely does not qualify as flourishing.

The human autopilot and associated screensaver mode have great value for survival and efficiency in our busy world, but they function poorly during complex activities or in novel situations. Most importantly, the failure to engage fully prevents awareness, appreciation, and awe which lift our human lives above the quotidian. As in piloting, we must be vigilant to monitor these automatic operations metacognitively and know when to disconnect the magic, take full manual control, and engage. A fully lived life requires engagement and savoring. These skills are easily lost if we live our lives for efficiency and rely on easy operation under the control of habits. It is important to hand fly more of the human experience if we want to flourish.

Example: What Can We Learn from Aviation?

Going Through the Pre-Flight Checklist

All these piloting insights and tools are available to every person. My intention in positive psychology is to apply the tools from aviation to human flourishing, much as Peter Pronovost added aviation checklists to medicine in the Keystone Initiative, so well described by Gawande. Through the simple application of checklist discipline, within the first three months of the project, the infection rate in Michigan’s intensive care units decreased by sixty-six per cent. In the first eighteen months, participating hospitals saved an estimated hundred and seventy-five million dollars in costs and more than fifteen hundred lives, all because of a simple aviation-based checklist.

Understanding these insights and employing the tools from aviation can allow people to take charge of their lives and pilot successful futures through awareness, appreciation, and fulfillment. Embracing your life with eyes wide open allows you to determine and design your own life story, full of appreciation, gratitude, and awe. Good luck.


Burnett, W., Burnett, B., & Evans, D. J. (2016). Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Knopf.

Carr, N. (2011). The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W. W. Norton & Company.

Hertz, N. (2013). Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World. HarperBusiness.

Hertz, N. (2013). Eyes Wide Open Sampler.

Klein, G., Ross, K. G., Moon, B. M., Klein, D. E., Hoffman, R. R., & Hollnagel, E. (2003). Macrocognition. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 18(3), 81-85. Abstract.

Gawande, A. (2010). The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Picador Press.

Reyna, V. F., & Brainerd, C. J. (2011). Dual Processes in Decision Making and Developmental Neuroscience: A Fuzzy-Trace Model. Developmental Review Special Edition on Dual Process Models of Cognitive Development, 31(2-3), 180–206. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2011.07.004

St George, D. P. (2015). Pilot Your Life Decisively for Well-Being and Flourishing. University of Pennsylvania, MAPP Capstone.

Photo Credit: from Flickr via Compfight with >Creative Commons Licenses
Airplane screensaver courtesy of b_d_solis
Flight control unit – autopilot courtesy of realmcflier
Going through the preflight checklist courtesy of ronniefleming@btinternet.com

This article first appeared on Positive Psychology News. To see the original article, click here. To comment on this article, click here.

David St. George, MAPP 2015 is a Multi-Engine Airline Transport Pilot and also Designated Pilot Examiner for the FAA performing pilot certification for all levels of pilots. He has flown since the age of 16. His daughter's fourth-grade teacher recommended Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence four times. This introduction started a life change that brought him to MAPP. David's interest is primarily in the psychology of optimizing human performance in high-stakes environments. David's articles are here.

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Positive Psychology News Daily by Kathryn Britton - 4d ago

By Kathryn Britton -

Last weekend I received an invitation to participate in a fundraiser that commemorates Christopher Peterson’s three-word summary of positive psychology, “Other people matter.”

What makes life worth living? (Part 1) - YouTube

(If the video isn’t embedded, click to see Chris Peterson giving the 3-word summary of positive psychology).

Jordana Cole and Sophia Kokores launched the fundraiser involving t-shirts and sweatshirts to benefit the Christopher Peterson Fellowship Fund at the University of Pennsylvania. Neither ever met Chris, since he died in 2012, long before they attended MAPP. But they have felt his legacy and want to pass it on.

If you’d like to participate in the fundraiser and get your very own “Other people matter” shirt, here’s the link. But perhaps you need to read on a little first.

There was some concern in the community that “Other people matter,” might be seen as being in conflict with “Black lives matter.” I don’t know if Chris would change his words if he were alive today. I hope the two messages can co-exist, that people need to be connected to other people to flourish and that black lives are important to our collective well-being. Black lives haven’t historically been treated that way, or else the second message would not be needed. In his message, Chris was telling us not to put ourselves at the center of the stage as if we could manage to be happy by turning inward and working on ourselves in isolation. We are social animals. We need each other. We need all of each other. We need other people.

What Does It Mean to Matter?

I spent some time thinking about what mattering means. It’s a word that we feel we understand, but it’s hard to put in words.

So, I was very happy to hear Isaac Prilleltensky explore what it means in a recent webinar. Here’s what people feel when they believe they matter:

  • Other people value them.
  • They add value to the world.

Using this as a starting point, perhaps “Other people matter,” could be translated into action by conveying to others that we value them and reflecting back to them the value they add.

Words into Action

We live such interconnected lives that we have opportunities all around us to live according to other people matter.

Driving in traffic? Be aware that all (or almost all) of the people around you are following laws and conventions that make it possible to share the road. Give other people breaks. Be grateful for the breaks they give you.

Feeling hungry? Be aware of all the people who made it possible for you to eat, from the farmers to the bankers that finance the farms to the packagers to the truckers to the grocers to the cook. That’s just a sample of all the people who have contributed to the food on the table. Try grocery shopping in a frame of gratitude. Tell the cashier and the people stocking the shelves how they’ve helped you.

On a call with your mother, child, friend? Observe her joys and concerns. Observe how she has touched someone else’s life in the course of a day or a month. Perhaps share some of these observations with her.

Where can you show people that they matter?

Where can you help them see the value they add?


Peterson, C. (2013). Other people matter: Two examples. Chapter 37 in Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. (2013. Gratitude: Letting other people know they matter benefits us. Chapter 38 in Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Polly, S. & Britton, K. H. (Eds.) (2015). Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life (Positive Psychology News). Positive Psychology News. This book is also a fundraiser for the same fund.

Prilleltensky, I. (2018, February 27). The context of well-being. IPPA Positive Psychology Leaders Series.

Prilleltensky, I. (2016). The Laughing Guide to Well-Being: Using Humor and Science to Become Happier and Healthier. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; Reprint edition.

Thank you, Debbie Swick, for the picture of Christopher Peterson. You matter!

This article first appeared on Positive Psychology News. To see the original article, click here. To comment on this article, click here.

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is a member of the Silicon Valley Change coaching network. She is also a writing coach and facilitator of writing workshops. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

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By Homaira Kabir -

Raccoons – Visceral response to criticism

Have you ever experienced criticism and reacted in a way that didn’t make you proud? Well of course you have. You’re human! Perhaps you lashed out at the person who criticized you. Or perhaps you felt pangs of shame and closed down in self-loathing.

I know I’ve had my share of such reactions. I also know that in hindsight I’ve often found the reactions to be extreme, given the comment was said either without much thought or in all good earnest. Sometimes it had much less to do with me than with the meaning-making processes of the other person.

Over time, I learned that the way we relate to the outside world, and especially in our relationships, is often the best indicator of how we relate to ourselves at a much deeper level. In the years I spent researching self-worth, I found again and again that a sense of unworthiness is the biggest cause of pain in most relationships. Feeling inadequate keeps us from being open and honest. It keeps us from bringing up important issues for fear of judgment or rejection. It keeps us desperate to prove our worth.


It also keeps us from taking responsibility for important issues and from accepting the truth about ourselves and the situation. Instead, we often resort to reflecting our inadequacy onto others by passing blame around, a behavior indicative of what the late Micheal Kernis called Fragile Self-Esteem (FSE). In intimate relationships, John Gottman’s research has shown that such criticism and contempt are the most common reasons that couples divorce.

I realized that my eye-rolling, snippy comments, dismissive voice, and judgments of other people’s opinions were sometimes caused by stress or lack of time. But more often, they were because of a deep inadequacy I was hiding even from my own self. The only way I could be more open and accepting in my relationships was to understand and accept my own inner truth.

Taking the Inner Journey

The inner journey into the dark basement of our own psyche is never a pleasant one. It can throw open the doors of pain, of discomfort, of grief. When it does, we need a loving soul to reach down to us, pick us up in a warm embrace, and help us reclaim our sense of self.

Inner Journey

Our cognitive capabilities cannot help us do so. I know, because I tried the cognitive approach given my training as a cognitive behavioral therapist. I listened to my thoughts and found it reasonably easy to acknowledge that they were illogical, unhelpful, or outright false. But it did little to console me, and I still struggled to find my way out of the shame response.

That’s when I learned the power of self-compassion. I understood that certain comments or situations can activate primitive parts of the brain that act as our red alert system, which initiates the fight, flight, or freeze response before we know it. Perhaps this response helped our ancestors be accepted back into their tribes because it showed repentance for their mistakes. Today, it is doing quite the opposite by damaging or destroying our relationships.

The way out was not through logic, because our primitive brain is largely deaf to logic. It yearns for the feeling of being seen, felt, and understood. Self-compassion is that loving friend or caring parent within us that provides it with those feelings by helping us relate to ourselves with kindness and love. Given that we’re not used to doing so, thanks to an inner voice that tries to protect us from erring in the first place, this can be a difficult process. But with practice, we open up to the real magic in its caress.

The Magic of Self-compassion

Self-compassion shifts our brain to the tend and befriend response. This not only calms our fears, it also provides us with the wisdom and courage to do the right thing. It also helps us open up to multiple perspectives and relate to others with empathy, patience, and compassion.

How do you see yourself?

Kristen Neff’s research shows that self-compassion helps us recognize that our critical thoughts are just that: fleeting mental clouds that we can observe without the need to respond. We also recognize that each one of us has the same clouds floating in our heads and urging us to take action, sometimes helpful, sometimes otherwise. It’s what binds us together as a common humanity. We need compassion to help us through this common journey of suffering.

I invite you to take a moment to reflect on a relationship that could do with some work. Are there thoughts, emotions, or deeply embedded needs that you feel ashamed to bring up? Could there be feelings that the other person may be hiding from you and/or from self? How may these unattended needs from the two of you be coming together to tear at the fabric of your relationship? When all is said and done, there’s nothing that’s more fundamental to our relationships that the need to feel seen, heard, and acknowledged.

Here’s the good news. When we practice self-compassion on a regular basis, we literally mold our brains for the better, thanks to the power of experience-dependent neuroplasticity. This changes our gene expression towards greater compassion, so that we not only build our relationships, we’re literally evolving our collective brain towards a higher consciousness.


Kernis, M., Lakey, C. & Heppner, W. (2008). Secure Versus Fragile High Self-Esteem as a Predictor of Verbal Defensiveness: Converging Findings Across Three Different Markers. Journal of Personality 76(3), 477- 512.

The Gottman Institute. Avoid the Four Horsemen for Better Relationships

Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins.

Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Sounds True.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licensesc
Raccoons courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar
Self-worth? courtesy of Mac(3)
Self-image courtesy of TwinLotus II
Molding together courtesy of NYSCI. In this picture, people are in NY Science Museum Maker Space, molding and casting

This article first appeared on Positive Psychology News. To see the original article, click here. To comment on this article, click here.

Homaira Kabir (MAPP UEL) is a positive psychology coach specializing in women's self-worth. She works with mid-life women searching for a meaningful purpose. She also writes regularly for Forbes, Happify, and the Huffington Post on living with courage, intention, and compassion. You can read all her articles on her web site. Homaira's articles for Positive Psychology News are here.

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By Lisa Buksbaum -

When a child is ill, the whole family is in crisis. Often mothers are the ones who nurture and support the entire family. That’s why today and everyday we salute millions of women who love, support, care for, and inspire ill children, teens, and families to “Never give up!”

The SOARING into Strength model of my organization, SoaringWords, is built around seven core Positive Psychology constructs to enhance the well-being of ill children, teens, families and caregivers. This evidence-based model has been tested among hundreds of hospitalized children and teens around the world. I’m going to use this structure to celebrate some of many heroic women who have shaped the SOARING components of positive psychology:

  • Shifting
  • Optimism
  • Altruism
  • Resilience
  • Imagery
  • Narrative
  • Gratitude

SHIFTINGis creating changes in your attitude, your body, and overall well-being. When a child is hospitalized, each day the child’s PATIENT identity gets reinforced as hospital technicians read the code number on his hospital identity bracelet before each medical procedure. The child is forced to wear institutional hospital scrubs identical to the other patients. The child is isolated from his or her friends and family. Even the hospital bed often resembles a jail cell with cumbersome plastic or metal guardrails on either side. The child starts habituating to this new identity of someone who is SERIOUSLY ill. They can lose their sense of self. Child life professionals and nurses do the daily heavy-lifting of patient-care, essential to restoring children’s identity and well-being. Soaringwords’ expressive arts projects are powerful tools to shift a child’s perspective from isolation and despair to engagement and re-connection to sense of humor, creativity, and kindness.

Photo: courtesy of Soaringwords. Children and caring professionals enjoy making SoaringJoke Books and other expressive arts projects to share with other children.

OPTIMISM is finding the good even when times are difficult or painful. When we think of positivity, Barbara Fredrickson, one of the founders of the field of Modern Positive Psychology surely comes to mind. Barbara’s Broaden and Build theory of Positive Emotions proves that when we experience positive emotions it broadens us and enables us to experience MORE positive emotions. Our peripheral vision expands, our relaxation response kicks in, and our body produces more endorphins, making us feel better.

Photo: the author interviewing Barbara Fredrickson for the launch of her book, Love 2.0, at the International Positive Psychology Association World Congress in L.A.

Optimism is expecting good things to happen in your life, while pessimism is expecting bad things to occur. Optimistic people and pessimistic people tend to approach life in radically different ways. The way a person approaches problems has an impact on her health and well-being and also her children’s well-being.

For example, when an Optimist faces a challenge she tends to expect a good outcome, even if things will be hard. Optimists acknowledge the problem, place it in as positive a light as possible, use humor to relieve the stress, and try to do whatever possible to lead to a positive outcome. This proactive way of thinking and acting gives her a sense of control that she is taking an active role to do what she can in the face of a challenging situation.

When JoAnne was born without the use of her legs, the pediatric neurologist told her parents “Children like this are like wet rags. Just enjoy the limited time you have with her….” Instead of succumbing to his dire prognosis, her parents created “Operation Puddle Jump” where they gave their daughter every opportunity to experience a happy normal childhood. JoAnne became a nationally ranked ballroom dancer (from her wheelchair) and is a Zumba® instructor inspiring her students.

Photo: JoAnne rocks the stage at the Soaringwords’ presentation at the International Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida

ALTRUISM is gaining a sense of control by sharing your creativity, kindness, strengths, and hope with others. Jane Dutton is the world-renowned expert on compassion, a positive psychology exemplar who has mentored and nurtured dozens of accomplished leaders who have made valuable contributions to the world. Compassion and kindness are foundational for healing. Once you focus your attention on others, your heart opens and you feel connected to something larger than yourself. At Soaringwords, we motivate ill children and families to “pay it forward” to help others. When a child does something kind for another person, it accelerates transformative healing.

Isolation is often the most prominent negative emotion people experience when they are ill or hospitalized and when someone they love is ill. Being ill isolates people and physically removes them from their normal circles of support. Doing something kind for someone else lessens isolation considerably. So your grandmother was right, “It’s better to give than to receive.” And, the best part is, you also end up feeling pretty great too.

Photo: Lisa and Jane at the Compassion Conference in Louisville KY with the Dalai Lama.

RESILIENCE is flourishing through difficult times. We can’t control external factors in our lives such as illness, natural disasters, or the behavior of others. However, we can take an active role in our own responses to life’s adversities and challenges.

Being resilient is not about being strong on the outside or stuffing our feelings to present a brave front. True resilience is about being open and vulnerable to our deepest feelings, and then choosing to give our all to take the next right step even in the face of serious challenges.

Recently, grit, a new word for resilience, has burst into the vernacular. Dr. Angela Duckworth, my mentor, friend and professor, is the leading expert in the world.

Duckworth defines grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals that are really hard. Hospitalized children, teens, and their families are some of the grittiest people on the planet because they are fighting for the most important thing in the world: to regain health. This passion makes them resilient. There’s nothing more important than working hard to have a good life despite the challenges and limitations thrust upon you. Caretakers, parents, and hospital personnel may be able to enhance a child’s and teen’s grittiness by teaching him or her how to focus on what is going well.

Photo: Angela Duckworth on the eve of the launch of GRIT creating a video for hospitalized children and families.

Teaching and modeling can help children and teens experience a sense of accomplishment in the face of tremendous challenges. I believe that if a hospitalized child or teen and his or her parents can learn to focus on simple goals that a child can accomplish throughout the course of a day, they will be better equipped to stay positive.

When I was writing my Master’s thesis, we invited 220 patients to create a SoaringSuperhero message and artwork to donate to another patient. All 220 patients chose to make a superhero to pay-it-forward. One patient was in the Intensive Care Unit at the time of the survey. It took her two weeks to complete her superhero but she persisted in between surgeries and recovering. Imagine the pride and sense of accomplishment that she felt to know that she was capable of doing something so positive and significant to give hope to another child.

Photo Courtesy of SoaringWords.org: Rainbow unicorn girl artwork

IMAGERY is connecting to your inner knowledge to heal through imagery exercises. Imagery is the shared social language of the mind. It takes less than 60 seconds. When you have pressing work or personal challenges, imagery can immediately recalibrate your body chemistry, halting the fight or flight response and restoring you to equilibrium. ALL OF THE ANSWERS ARE ALREADY INSIDE OF YOU. The more you do imagery the easier it becomes to draw on it.

I first met Gabby a ten-year-old girl because her mother works at Johnson & Johnson, one of the amazing companies that supports the work of Soaringwords. Someone mentioned that her daughter had leukemia. I asked to speak to the mom and later that night I was on the phone speaking to Gabby and her mother. They were extremely receptive to learning how to reduce the pain from Gabby’s bi-monthly spinal infusions of chemotherapy. In less than ten minutes, I taught them how to do healing imagery to help Gabby take an active role in her self-healing. For the next two years every morning and night, Gabby and her mom did the healing imagery. She has completely recovered.

Photo Courtesy of SoaringWords.org: Gabby learning imagery

NARRATIVE is sharing the power of storytelling, reading and writing positive stories. In the old days people gathered around the fireplace or town square and lived in extended communities, often many generations living in the same dwelling. Today our families and our lives are fragmented. Everyone has heard the expression that laughter is contagious. So is happiness.

Dr. Margarita Tarragona has merged narrative therapy and positive psychology, helping people understand the stories they are telling themselves and construct new stories that fit the facts.

An Interview with Margarita Tarragona on Narrative Practices - YouTube
Link to short interview of Dr. Tarragona about narrative practices.

GRATITUDE is the most powerful of all the positive emotions. When you are grappling with serious illness or someone you know or love is ill, gratitude can often be the life-line that saves your sanity and prevents you from hating everyone you encounter whose life seems to be fabulous and perfect.

There are many wonderful way of EXTENDING gratitude. Writing gratitude letters is one very very effective way. You write the letter and then, if possible, set up a time to meet the person in person. When you get together you actually read the letter to them. You can still write a gratitude letter to someone you know or someone who has died. The act of writing the letter is extremely therapeutic.

Another powerful gratitude exercise is writing a gratitude letter to yourself to recognize and celebrate the wonderful qualities that you possess. Try it, you’ll be amazed at how powerful this exercise is.

In her book about 12 ways to enhance happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky has described other ways to use gratitude to enhance well-being.

Photo: courtesy of Soaringwords. Sharing a Gratitude Letter is a powerful way to experience positive emotions

Wishing you inner fortitude and strength as you celebrate wonderful women and thoughtful men in your life.


Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner.

Dutton, J. & Worline, M. (2017). Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Tarragona, M. (2013). Positive Identities: Narrative Practices and Positive Psychology (The Positive Psychology Workbook Series). The Positive Psychology Workbook Series.

This article first appeared on Positive Psychology News. To see the original article, click here. To comment on this article, click here.

Lisa Buksbaum, MAPP '13 is CEO & Founder of Soaringwords, a global not-for-profit organization that inspires ill children and families to take active roles in self-healing. Since 2001, Soaringwords has inspired more than 500,000 people to pay-it- forward to inspire ill children and teens to "Never give up!" Lisa's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

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By Lisa Buksbaum -

Yesterday I introduced The Strengths Switch by Dr. Lea Waters. Today I want to highlight the distinctions she makes among different kinds of strengths, learned behaviors, and weaknesses. People can become very proficient at learned behaviors, but without the energy and enjoyment associated with strengths. To understand the differences, let’s look at three dimensions for evaluating possible strengths:

  • Performance: being good at something. Watch for times when your children show above-age levels of achievement, rapid learning, and repeated patterns of success.
  • Energy: feeling good while doing it. Strengths are self-reinforcing. The more we use them, the more energized we become.
  • High use: choosing to do it. Watch for what your children choose to do in their spare time, how often they engage in these activities, how they speak about these activities.

Different Kinds of Strengths

Using these dimensions helps parents distinguish among different kinds of strengths, as shown in the figure below.

Take a closer look at strengths

Core Strengths are our go-to strengths. They fuel high levels of performance and energy and use.

Think about your child. Imagine her without one of her core strengths. For example, my son Jonathan is social. It is impossible to imagine Jonathan being himself without his sense of humor or loyalty to his friends. My son Josh is empathetic and kind. It’s impossible to imagine Josh without thinking of his thoughtfulness. What are the core strengths that are the essence of your children? What are the core strengths that make you the person you have become?

Growth Strengths energize us and offer the potential for good performance, but use is typically low to medium. You may see only glimpses of them, but they can shine if they are developed. You may notice that when your child is using a growth strength she is energized and showing early signs of good performance. According to Dr. Waters, these strengths are fascinating because they don’t initially look like strengths, but they can blossom quickly once they are discovered.

Learning about strengths at Independent School 528

You can encourage your child to use her growth strengths by:
  • Noticing the strength she’s drawing upon
  • Pointing out how her performance is improving
  • Letting her know you see the positive energy she’s exuding when she’s using the strength
  • Offering low pressure opportunities to use that strength
  • Praising her when she chooses to use it on her own accord

Learned Behaviors need to be taught, often to meet requirements of parents or school. Therefore, motivation to perform learned behaviors comes from the desire to please others, operate successfully in the world, or to gain external rewards. They are not intrinsically motivating. Your child can excel in these areas, but they do not give energy.

But What About Weaknesses?

Weaknesses also exist. Weaknesses are features that are disadvantages or flaws that prevent us from being effective at something. We can be weak in certain skills, abilities, talents, or character traits. We all have weaknesses. When my sons were young, I always showed them when I made a mistake in order to model the fact that no one is perfect and that it’s okay to not be great at everything. Today my husband and I often reach out to them for technical support when we reach the limits of our ability to deal with the machines in our home.

Dr. Waters stresses that strength-based parenting doesn’t mean ignoring your child’s weaknesses, but it does allow you to approach them from a healthier and more productive perspective. When the focus is first and foremost on strengths, everyone can be more genuine and less defensive when communicating about weaknesses. Three essential messages to give your child about weaknesses:

  • Just as everyone has strengths, everyone has weaknesses.
  • Having weaknesses doesn’t mean you’re unworthy.
  • Avoid the trap of spending too much time focusing on your weaknesses.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Each day you have the opportunity to practice strengths-based parenting. You will learn from your progress, and you’ll constantly be given new real-life opportunities to become a master electrician, flipping the switch.

Go to the Strength Switch website for free resources, a blog reflecting on putting the strengths switch into action, and information about the 5-week online course.

Lea was the emcee for the Soaringwords Opening night celebration at the
Canadian Positive Psychology Conference in 2015 at Niagara on the Lake.
Here she is in the middle of the dancers.


Waters, L. (2017). The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. New York: Avery.

Waters, L. (2018, Jan. 2). Working with Weakness: 3 Ways to Effectively Confront Your Child’s Weak Spots. Lea Waters’ blog.

Waters, L. (2018, Jan. 16). 4 Ways to Put Strength-Based Discipline into Practice. Lea Waters’ blog. Includes a discussion of dialing up or dialing down strengths.

The picture of core strengths, growth strengths, learned behaviors, and weaknesses is used courtesy of Dr. Lea Waters.
The other images were provided by SoaringWords.

This article first appeared on Positive Psychology News. To see the original article, click here. To comment on this article, click here.

Lisa Buksbaum, MAPP '13 is CEO & Founder of Soaringwords, a global not-for-profit organization that inspires ill children and families to take active roles in self-healing. Since 2001, Soaringwords has inspired more than 500,000 people to pay-it- forward to inspire ill children and teens to "Never give up!" Lisa's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

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By Lisa Buksbaum -

The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish by Dr. Lea Waters, PhD, Professor and Founding Director of Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Melbourne.

What if you could make a small shift in your parenting style that would yield enormous results for your child… and for you?

If you’re like most people, you want to raise emotionally and intellectually healthy children. But today there’s so much pressure to have our children and grandchildren excel in EVERY aspect of their tender lives.

Dr. Lea Waters

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, parents can post every trophy and accomplishment on social media. Today’s children are the most documented generation of all time. Being bombarded with daily photo and video montages showcasing the accolades and adventures of other peoples’ seemingly perfect children tends to accentuate the tendency to focus on what’s wrong with our children and then try to fix it.

Lea Water’s break-through strength-based parenting approach changes that around. First it helps you see what is right about your children. Then it helps you nurture and cultivate their innate strengths and talents.

Sounds great. How do I do this?

Start with observation. If your daughter is really interested in music and loves to sing along with every song on the radio, perhaps you want to encourage her to join a chorus at her school, pick up an instrument, or start writing her own lyrics. If your son is likes to read more than he enjoys playing sports, perhaps you want to introduce him to some age-appropriate book series that pique his interests instead of pushing him to compete in sports that he does not enjoy.

Thus the strength-based parenting approach involves two simple steps: First see your child’s strengths. Then build upon them.

Dr. Waters notes three strength-based parenting styles:

    Parents love to share strengths

  • Strengths Communicators: Parents who naturally use conversation with their kids to highlight strengths and talk about opportunities to use strengths for better outcomes.
  • Strengths Activators: Parents who coach their children to practice their strengths when hands-on opportunities arise.
  • Strengths Creators: Parents who are big-picture thinkers that can strategically create strengths-based opportunities for their kids.

Parents tend to use a blend of all three approaches with a dominant style based on the parent’s own strengths. To find your own dominant style, take the Strengths-Parenting Style Survey as part of Dr. Water’s online strength-based parenting course.

Use the Strengths Switch to Short-circuit Negative Thoughts

At the end of the day, chances are, your energy is depleted from hours of work, significant responsibilities, and caring for your children. When you’re hungry, angry, and tired it’s easy to become irritable. Dr. Waters offers the strength switch as a simple but powerful tool to help you shift from focusing on your children’s weaknesses to focusing on their strengths. The strength switch acts like a circuit breaker, which is defined by Wikipedia as an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by excess current that typically results from an overload or short circuit. The circuit breaker interrupts current flow after a fault is detected.

Most of us can appreciate how negative thoughts and emotions can short-circuit our sense of balance. So thinking about this metaphor sounds good on paper, but how do you practice strength-based parenting in the moment when negative emotions start to overwhelm? Dr. Waters has a step-by-step guide for the strength switch briefly summarized here:

    Where was the bike left out?

  • Observe your child’s action. For now, let’s assume your child did not put his bicycle away. It’s blocking the front door of your apartment so you have to move it in order to get inside your home.
  • Take a nanosecond to remember that just because you aren’t seeing your child’s strengths in that moment, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.
  • Pause for a moment: be mindful when the knee-jerk negative default feelings and thoughts start to take over. Taking a pause helps you get between your thoughts and feelings and a negative reaction.
  • Take a couple of deep breaths. Each time you breath out, you reduce stress hormones and calm your body.
  • Insert the thought, “The strengths are here, but they’re hiding. Let me switch over to find them.”
  • Take a few minutes to allow yourself to settle down. Perhaps you want to hang up your coat, or change out of your work clothes. Maybe you want to listen to your favorite song before speaking to your son.
  • Say what you mean, but not in a way that is mean. Children, especially very young ones, cannot distinguish subtle emotions such as irony or sarcasm. It’s best to say what you want in a neutral and loving way, not letting anger or frustration seep into your voice.

    Say something such as, “I see that you cleaned your room and made your bed this morning before you went to school. That’s great. I had a bit of trouble getting into the house today when I got home because your bike was blocking the door. When you come home from school tomorrow, I’d like you to remember to park your bike on the side of the house.

When we activate the strength switch, it can produce radically different results. Flipping the switch, we experience a sense of control by actively choosing where to put our selective attention. Where attention goes, energy flows. Imagine how liberating it is to choose to focus on the positive instead of harping on the negatives. Reinforcing your child’s strengths gives you both a powerful foundation of good will and trust. This fertile ground is a much better place to address areas that need fine-tuning.

Sharing smiles and encouragement, even in the midst of medical challenges

Practice the Strength Switch

Think of a situation from the past couple of weeks where your negative feelings escalated and you lost your cool with your child, causing both of you to feel crummy about the situation. In a couple of sentences write down what happened simply re-telling the facts.

Now close your eyes and breathe out and re-imagine the scene. See yourself taking a pause, and see yourself remembering that your child has strengths, even though you temporarily are focusing on something that is out of balance. Now, write down a new ending to this story where you flipped the strength switch and approached the situation from a place of love and patience, recognizing the good in the child before addressing the situation that needs an adjustment.

Reread your notes. See how taking a few moments to recalibrate your thoughts, feelings, and actions can make an enormous difference in the outcome: Happier parent. Happier child, motivated to remember to use her strengths in the future.

Come back tomorrow to explore the distinction Dr. Waters makes between strengths and learned behaviors.



Waters, L. (2017). The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. New York: Avery.

Waters, L. Strengths Switch: Glossary of Strengths Terms.

Waters, L. Strengths Games.

Photo Credits:
Picture of Dr. Lea Waters from the Lea Waters site.
Bike left out courtesy of nicolasschabram from Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons license
The other two images are shared courtesy of SoaringWords.

This article first appeared on Positive Psychology News. To see the original article, click here. To comment on this article, click here.

Lisa Buksbaum, MAPP '13 is CEO & Founder of Soaringwords, a global not-for-profit organization that inspires ill children and families to take active roles in self-healing. Since 2001, Soaringwords has inspired more than 500,000 people to pay-it- forward to inspire ill children and teens to "Never give up!" Lisa's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

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By Craig Smith -

The practice of mindfulness dates back thousands of years with some of its origins rooted in the practices of early eastern religions including Hinduism and Buddhism.

Mindful together

Since its secular introduction to the west by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970’s, scientific interest in the application of mindfulness interventions keeps growing. A number of mindfulness-based interventions have been developed and tested over a wide range of target populations, successfully treating both emotional and behavioral disorders. Some also enhance well-being for non-clinical populations.

Some of these include:

  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (Kabat-Zinn)
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale)
  • Mindfulness-based eating awareness (Kristeller, Bear, & Quillian-Wolever)
  • Mindfulness-based strengths practice (Niemiec)

Attention to the Here and Now

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as

“the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

To broaden a participant’s self-awareness around the most important building blocks of mindfulness, attention, and the present moment, is the fundamental goal that many of these programs and interventions aim to achieve.

“The goal of mindfulness interventions is to teach participants to become aware of body sensations, thoughts, and emotions and to relate to them with an open, non-judgmental attitude.” (Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005).

Increasing a participant’s awareness is achieved through a number of formal and informal techniques.

Meditative Exercises

Formal techniques include meditative exercises that are central to a mindfulness intervention. They are generally performed in a group session with the supervision of a trainer. People are often encouraged to perform them at home daily with a guided audio file. Some examples include the body scan, which aims to make participants aware of each part of their bodies, and seated meditation, which highlights breath as the main focal point.

Informal techniques are mindfulness interventions that aim to enhance mindful awareness during everyday life situations. They require participants to maintain a single focus of attention and develop the ability to turn back to the object of attention if distraction should occur.

Mindfulness X

The rise in scientific studies since the year 2000 has led to valuable insights into the underlying mechanisms and positive effects of mindfulness. As a result, many programs and resources have become widely accessible for helping professionals across all fields.

Mindfulness X was developed in the Netherlands by Dr. Hugo Alberts, psychologist, researcher, and entrepreneur. The program combines the practice and psychology behind mindfulness to help trainers apply a science-based mindfulness approach to their client bases. It divides mindfulness into eight different building blocks:

  1. Attention & The Now – cultivating attention to the present moment
  2. Automaticity – exploring the automatic nature of thoughts
  3. Judgment – exploring the judgmental nature of mind
  4. Acceptance – applying acceptance to difficult emotions
  5. Goals – finding a balance between being in the present moment and planning for the future
  6. Compassion – effectively cultivating a friendly and caring relationship with the self
  7. The Ego – defining the difference between the self as a story and the self as an observer
  8. Integration – integrating mindfulness into daily life

Training Materials

Programs such as the Mindfulness X training template provide professionals with the knowledge and tools to give their own mindfulness training. By addressing the most important elements of mindfulness one-by-one, this training breaks down mindfulness in a comprehensible way, making it accessible to a larger audience. However, it is advised to use such training platforms within the boundaries of your professional expertise. It is not a substitute for a mindfulness trainer certification program. If you are a client interested in the benefits of a mindfulness approach, we recommend that you seek certified, professional advice.

Benefits of Mindfulness Training

Research on mindfulness has shown many beneficial effects.

Zindel Segal Ph.D., founder of MCBT and professor of brain and therapeutics at the University of Toronto has shown that using meditation in psychotherapy can help participants with depression keep from relapsing.

Through studying the neuroscience of mindfulness, Sarah Lazar Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, has suggested that these practices could also make structural changes in the brain and possibly slow age-related atrophy.

From mindful interventions that aid in stress-reduction to mindful eating practices that could help counter obesity, further science-based research into mindfulness interventions will allow the field to continue to develop tools that help professionals understand how to treat some of the underlying causes of emotional or behavioral disorders, not just ameliorate the resulting physical symptoms.

Editor’s Note: Positive Psychology News has an affiliate arrangement with Mindfulness X. If you order it via this link, PPN gets an affiliate fee to apply to site maintenance.


Ackerman, C. (2017). What is MBCT? + 28 Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Resources.

Alberts, H. J., Thewissen, R., Raes, L. (2012). Dealing with problematic eating behaviour. The effects of a mindfulness-based intervention on eating behaviour, food cravings, dichotomous thinking and body image concern. Maastricht University. Appetite, 58(3), 847-851. Abstract. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.009

Crane, C., & Zindel, S. (2016). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy May Reduce Recurrent Depression Risk. Mindful.org

Harvard Medical School. (2016). Now and Zen: How mindfulness can change your brain and improve your health.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life. Sounds True.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2010). Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief. Music Design.

Kristeller, J.L., Wolever, R.Q. & Sheets, V. (2011). Mindfulness-based eating awareness training (MB-EAT) for treating binge eating disorder: the conceptual foundation. Mindfulness. doi: 10.1080/10640266.2011.533605.

Lazar, S. (2011). How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains. [Video file]. TEDx Talk.

Niemiec, R. (2013). Mindfulness and Character Strengths. Hogrefe.

Pascha, M. (2015). Jon Kabat-Zinn and His Work on Mindfulness Meditation. Positive Psychology Program.

Robb-Nicholson, C. (n.d.). Mindful eating may help with weight loss. Harvard Health Publishing.

Shapiro, S. L., Astin, J. A., Bishop, S. R., & Cordova, M. (2005). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for health care professionals: Results From a randomized trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12(2), 164-176.

Zindel, S. (2014). The mindful way through depression. [Video file]. TEDx Talk.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Mindfulness on the dock courtesy of ~ l i t t l e F I R E ~
Other images used courtesy of the Mindfulness X program.

This article first appeared on Positive Psychology News. To see the original article, click here. To comment on this article, click here.

Craig Smith moved to The Netherlands from Australia in 2016. In Australia, he provided care and rehabilitation to clients with acquired brain injuries in his hometown of Sydney. Craig now works in The Hague with the Positive Psychology Program, where his love for digital media and interest in physiological therapies have aligned. Craig's articles are here.

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By Lisa Buksbaum -

Words from the heart enter the heart.
~ Mishnah, Rabbinic Commentary on the Talmud. Berachot 6b

Today neuroscience can validate the accuracy of this adage by empirically measuring the impact of loving words, adoring gazes, caring thoughts, and the simple touch of a hand or shoulder. Small gestures can have profound, immediate, and positive impacts on our physiology, thoughts, and feelings. Dacher Keltner speaks about four great loves: the love between parent and child, the passion between sexual partners, the enduring devotion between pair-bonders, and the love for non-kin, most typically friends and fellow humans, but also including pets.

How Can You Resist A Baby?

Bonding to a newborn

According to British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory, children come into the world biologically programmed to form attachment with others because this will help them survive. He posits that the first great love of life begins when we leave the womb. It includes a rich vocabulary of touch, voice, gaze, and facial displays and is evident in the merging of minds, heartbeats, and nervous systems of caretaker and young child.

These processes establish deep patterns of neural response in the pre-social nervous system: growth in tactile receptors in the skin, strengthening of the oxytocin system, setting the HPA axis to less stressful levels, and lighting up reward centers in the brain. For those of you who don’t happen to be brain surgeons, HPA is an abbreviation for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. It describes a complex set of interactions among the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain and the adrenal glands in the body. Keltner likens the experiences of early love to feeling a warm hand on your back encouraging you as you move through life.

Not everyone forms warm and supportive attachments. Some experienced cycles of isolation or trauma as young children. Fortunately, through twelve-step programs, counseling, and determination, even people without secure attachment can become the empathetic, nurturing parents that they wished they had had.

The Thrill of It All

Anyone who has experienced a grade-school crush, high-school flirtation, or serious love relationship knows that powerful passionate feelings can short-circuit the brain. My first crush was directed towards Bruce Grunt, the new boy in town who sported wavy brown hair, big eyes, and a winning smile. What clinched Bruce as a fifth-grade heart-throb for me was that he reportedly played the drums just like Bobbie Sherman of the Monkees, one of top teen idols at the time.

Just engaged

Just as scientists have documented pervasive baby-parent bonding rituals, simple flirtation rituals echo the same auditory and physical bonding rites. Remember what it felt like to hear the other’s voice or see the other approaching? I remember my heart fluttering when I spotted my husband Jacob walking towards me on Manhattan’s West 86th Street when we were newlyweds. When we’d meet at our lobby, we’d both be grinning from ear to ear. Before proceeding to the elevator we’d share a hug, a universal gesture that places two individual bodies in a heart-to-heart stance. If positive psychologists had been perched in our lobby, they probably could have measured the expansion of our peripheral visions and the rise in our oxytocin levels.

All of these physical reactions demonstrate Barbara Fredrickson’s theory that experiencing positive emotions together actually opens us up to experience more positive sensations. Barb defines love as “micro-moments of connection,” and “positivity resonance.” I invite you to watch this Soaringwords’ video where Dr. Barbara Fredrickson shares findings from her riveting book, Love 2.0.

Barbara Fredrickson - Incorporating Positivity and Love Into Each Day - YouTube
(Youtube link)

After the Thrill, the Bonding

There’s nothing like the thrill of the powerful choreography of touch.

Puppies tumbling

Just like puppies tumbling around with joy and abandon, everything seems playful and new at the beginning of a relationship. There are many exquisite touch receptors under the surface of the skin that are activated with a provocative brush of the arm, an emphatic pat of the shoulder, a butt bump after a shared joke. These harmless ways of upping the ante in flirtation allow two people to read each other’s reactions to see if they are in fact in synch.

When all goes well, a couple experiences behavioral synchrony with mirror neurons firing and mutual mimicking of expressions, laughter, and body language. The old definitions of self give way to an entirely new identity. The new identity emerging from pair bonding can realign our lives. Amplified devotion prepares us for commitment to monogamous bonding. All of these dance steps of behavioral synchrony reinforce perpetuation of our genes, which brings us right back into experiencing those powerful parent-child bonding emotions with our offspring.

Sharing SoaringSuperheroes®

Pay-it-Forward and Expand Your Love

The best way to experience more love is to be gratuitously kind to others without expecting anything in return. Doing something nice for someone else simply because you expect a positive return reduces love to the level of a business transaction. In contrast, paying-it-forward is expansive and generative. This is why for the past sixteen years Soaringwords has inspired thousands of hospitalized children and teens to engage in expressive arts projects to donate to other ill children because we know that this simple gesture accelerates transformative healing.

Beloved Pets

Atul Gawande describes an experiment by Dr. Bill Thomas at the Chase Memorial Nursing Home concerned with measuring how man’s best friend (and some cats, bunnies and parakeets) retarded illness and aging.

4-pound sidekick, Lulu

As a young audacious doctor Bill Thomas was put in charge of a nursing home facility. He was dismayed to discover that the residents were depressed, heavily medicated, and isolated as they spent most of their time in their bedrooms or sitting shoulder to shoulder parked in their wheelchairs near the nursing station watching a TV with the sound blasting. Dr. Thomas ordered 100 parakeets, four dogs, two cats, a colony of rabbits, and a flock of laying hens.

The first few days were mayhem as fur and feathers literally flew around the facility. Then patients who were non-ambulatory volunteered to walk the dogs and actually walked for the first time in months. Otherwise non-responsive residents started caressing and caring for the bunnies and cats. Drug costs for the facility fell 38% compared to a comparable facility, while deaths decreased by fifteen percent.

These people needed something to love.

Share the love

So this Valentine’s Day, whether you’re loving a baby, flirting madly with someone new, keeping the flames of love stoked with your mate, or giving to close relatives, cherished friends, strangers, or pets, remember that loving words, gazes, and gentle touch can elevate the giver and receiver to experience laughter, gratitude, and joy together. As Helen Keller aptly said,

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They simply must be felt with the heart.

Love is everywhere if you’re open to seeing it!


Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books.

Buksbaum, L. (2013). Soaringwords empirical research to measure the well-being of hospitalized children. MAPP Capstone. University of Pennsylvania.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection. New York: Penguin Group.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Gawande, A. (2017). Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Picador.

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J., & Rapson, R. (1994). Emotional Contagion (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction). (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Father with newborn courtesy of rodrigocastro35
Puppies courtesy of mylilangel58(aka Jane)

Lisa’s pictures:
In between her chemo treatments Gabby shares SoaringSuperheroes® with patients at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
The author met a new friend – Allan and his four-pound sidekick Lulu- on the Miami Beach Boardwalk earlier this week shortly after sunrise.
Love in the subways of New York

This article first appeared on Positive Psychology News. To see the original article, click here. To comment on this article, click here.

Lisa Buksbaum, MAPP '13 is CEO & Founder of Soaringwords, a global not-for-profit organization that inspires ill children and families to take active roles in self-healing. Since 2001, Soaringwords has inspired more than 500,000 people to pay-it- forward to inspire ill children and teens to "Never give up!" Lisa's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

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By Homaira Kabir -

It’s that time of the year. The New Year’s Resolutions we set with such passion (and some frustration), and pursued with such determination, at least for the first couple of weeks, are now losing their momentum. Willpower seems harder to come by, and self-criticism and hopelessness are louder than ever.

There’s not much point in trying to silence the inner voices of “I’m such a failure,” “There’s no point trying,” and “How come she can and I can’t?” because right now, willpower is a wish at best. Instead, step away from your goals to see whether they’re worth pursing in the first place.

Road to success

Three Problems with the Glorification of Self-Improvement

We live in a world that glorifies self-improvement. Look around you, and you’ll see calls for a leaner body, a healthier diet, a more perfect looking home. You’ll find courses on everything from being a better (fill in the blank) to achieving all your goals (usually in 3 easy steps). While many of these goals are worthwhile endeavors, they’re mostly structured around the self: our own needs, wants, and desires. This can have far-reaching negative consequences.

Firstly, a self-centered goal is at odds with the way we’re wired. As David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, has written in his upcoming book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, most of our self-improvement goals didn’t even exist for most of our evolutionary history. We didn’t become successful by exercising more willpower or developing greater self-control. To succeed in life, we needed strong social bonds that were built by nurturing other-focused virtues like compassion, kindness, and fairness. Self-improvement goals not underpinned by something larger than ourselves are bound to fail because they rely on what Professor Roy Baumeister has called a depleting resource. Failures of self-control lead to disillusionment and self-criticism, creating downward spirals of decreasing perceived self-worth.


Secondly, the notion of self-improvement is founded, often subtly, on two self-defeating beliefs. One, that there’s something inherently lacking is us, and two, that we can become whoever we want to be, regardless of our natural limitations. Media and consumerism have a large role to play in the endless striving that results. Social media adds a new dimension that’s further stressing us out. Once upon a time, the ideal looks, vacations, and successes were reserved for the few and far in-between. Now it’s our everyday friends that have become our target of comparison as they collectively bombard us with images of their perfect lives. We’re caught in the perpetual pursuit of a mirage called contentment.

Finally, there’s a social cost to our self-improvement craze. We’re a social species, evolved to find our sense of self by belonging to something larger than ourselves. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur talks about the idea of constance de soi (self-constancy) in order to develop the deep relationships that help us understand ourselves. An individualistic culture of never-ending self-improvement keeps us locked in an ego-centric existence that’s neither conducive to relationship building, nor to finding joy and meaning in our lives.

What is Your Legacy?


We’re a divided species, burdened with both a selfish mind that seeks individualist pursuits and a selfless one that yearns for meaning. The former is what we also share with our primate cousins, but it’s the latter that’s unique to us (as far as we know). People call it by many names: wisdom, consciousness, the Self, the soul, the divine within us. Call it what you may, but we all have it. It’s what wakes us with questions in the silence of the night and what haunts us towards the end of our lives with one simple question: “What legacy are you leaving behind in this world?” While each one of us has to find his or her own answer, one thing is for sure: it’s rarely found in upgrading our bodies and homes.

How we manage these two minds in our lives is what living is all about. We can begin by stepping away from the self-improvement craze and understanding our place in the larger flow of life. What are we here to achieve? What needs can we address (aside from our own) and how can we make a real difference to other lives? Meaning is relational by its very nature. It grows out of bursting our self-reflective bubbles and belonging to something larger than ourselves.

That’s perhaps what self-improvement could really mean in an era when we’re increasingly being called to leave the world a little better than we found it. We know this in our bones. It’s time we put it into practice.



DeSteno, D. (2017, Dec 27). The only way to keep your resolutions. New York Times Sunday Review.

DeSteno, D. (2018). Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. New York: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252–1265. Abstract.

Ricouer, P. (1992). Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Self improvement courtesy of amphalon
Striving courtesy of xjyxjy
Legacy courtesy of Joshua Wells Photography

This article first appeared on Positive Psychology News. To see the original article, click here. To comment on this article, click here.

Homaira Kabir (MAPP UEL) is a positive psychology coach specializing in women's self-worth. She works with mid-life women searching for a meaningful purpose. She also writes regularly for Forbes, Happify, and the Huffington Post on living with courage, intention, and compassion. You can read all her articles on her web site. Homaira's articles for Positive Psychology News are here.

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