Tag Archives: psychology

Why Do We Enjoy Sad Music?

Screen shot 2014-09-03 at 4.14.17 PMSeptember 2, 2014

I’ve always been drawn to music in the minor key. This interesting study sheds some light on what happens, emotionally, when listening to “sad” music: It can actually stimulate positive emotions. I think this research should be considered along with other new studies showing what happens within the brain when we experience different kinds of music. But this study, by Japanese researchers and published in Frontiers in Psychology, may help explain why people enjoy listening to sad music, according to a summary in Science Daily.

Ai Kawakami and colleagues from Tokyo University of the Arts and the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Japan explained that sad music evoked contradictory emotions because the participants of the study tended to feel sad music to be more tragic, less romantic, and less blithe than they felt themselves while listening to it. “In general, sad music induces sadness in listeners, and sadness is regarded as an unpleasant emotion. If sad music actually evokes only unpleasant emotion, we would not listen to it,” the researchers wrote.

“Music that is perceived as sad actually induces romantic emotion as well as sad emotion. And people, regardless of their musical training, experience this ambivalent emotion to listen to the sad music,” added the researchers. Also, unlike sadness in daily life, sadness experienced through art actually feels pleasant, possibly because the latter does not pose an actual threat to our safety. This could help people to deal with their negative emotions in daily life, concluded the authors.

“Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life. Therefore, we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness. If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion,” they added.

For the study, Kawakami and colleagues asked 44 volunteers, including both musicians and non-specialists, to listen to two pieces of sad music and one piece of happy music. Each participant was required to use a set of keywords to rate both their perception of the music and their own emotional state. The sad pieces of music included Glinka’s “La Séparation” in F minor and Blumenfeld’s Etude “Sur Mer” in G minor. The happy music piece was Granados’s Allegro de Concierto in G major. To control for the “happy” effect of major key, they also played the minor-key pieces in major key, and vice versa.

 

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So Much Work, And No Time for Vacation? Here’s Why!

Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 10.34.49 AMAugust 12, 2014

Do you work increasingly long hours, maybe even pride yourself on taking little, if any, vacation time? If so, you’re in pretty good company. Some recent surveys confirm – again — that U.S. workers tend to take relatively little vacation time, and they work increasingly longer hours. With more heightened awareness of the damaging effects of work-life “imbalance,” physically and emotionally, one wonders, what maintains this unhealthy way of life for so many?

It’s easy to cite the fact that U.S. companies provide very little paid vacation time as a matter of policy compared with other industrialized nations. We’re the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t guarantee its workers paid vacation days and paid holidays, says John Schmitt, co-author of a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that, even after 10 years of employment, about 65 percent of workers have less than 2.5 weeks of paid vacation.

But the lack of vacation time provided by employers is both a cause and effect: It reflects something about our social values to begin with. For example, how we define success and personal worth can include taking little time away from work. And that, in turn, is reinforced by company policies. But beneath the surface, psychologically, is often a sense of being trapped in a way of life that one can’t break free from. Or, as one person told me, “I don’t like who I’ve become.”

According to one survey, the median vacation time is 12 days. And 40 percent take a week or less. Yet, the impact of overwork is well-known: Higher levels of stress, which can create both physical illness and emotional conflicts. It fuels marital and family conflicts. In fact, a Gallup survey found that nearly 70 percent who take no vacations at all report that they struggle to balance work and life. And, while another survey found that about 50 percent claim to be satisfied with their work-life balance, 81 percent also said that work-life balance would be a critical factor in deciding whether to accept a new position. Ironically, overwork and little time off leads to less productivity and less effective decision-making, as well as diminished focus and clarity. That’s become worse in today’s world, as recent research shows the cost of being online and available 24/7, thanks to digital technology.

As the saying goes, no one on their deathbed says they wished they had spent more time at the office. So, what propels people to diminish time away from work — even short breaks to recharge and reboot their energy and life balance? We need to look at some of the social and psychological motives that give rise to this paradoxical picture. Here are some that Continue reading

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30 Minutes of Meditation Reduces Anxiety And Depression

Screen shot 2014-07-15 at 10.01.07 AMJuly 15, 2014

I regularly encourage the practice of meditation to people I work with. It builds a kind of inner “shock absorber” that helps you maintain calm and focus in the midst of daily stress and the multiple demands of living in today’s world. While not the true purpose of meditation (that’s another subject), more effective management of stress and distressing emotional states is a byproduct that benefits many people – and with minimal investment of time.

Some new studies find that even 30 minutes of daily meditation has a noticeable impact upon symptoms of anxiety and depression — at least equal to antidepressant medications; without the side effects of the latter. Such studies add to the growing research on the multiple effects of meditation upon our mind-body system.

One recent study is the first to show that brief mindfulness meditation practice — 25 minutes for three consecutive days — alleviates psychological stress. Researchers investigated how mindfulness meditation affects people’s ability to be resilient under stress. Published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, this study was in contrast to most research that has focused on lengthy, weeks-long training programs.

In the study, conducted by J. David Creswell and his research team at Carnegie Mellon University, participants went through a brief mindfulness meditation training program; for 25 minutes for three consecutive days. Mindfulness meditation is a practice that focuses on nonjudgmental attention to the moment at hand. It emphasizes acceptance of feelings and thoughts without judgment and relaxation of body and mind. In subsequent testing, participants were found to experience reduced stress, indicating that the mindfulness meditation fostered increases resilience.

In another study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers focused on 47 clinical trials performed among 3,515 participants underwent what was typically an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation. Researchers found evidence of improvement in symptoms of anxiety, depression and pain after just 30 or so minutes per day of meditation. The findings held even as the researchers controlled for the possibility of the placebo effect.

“in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants,” says Madhav Goyal of Johns Hopkins University, and a lead researcher in the study. He adds, “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing. But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”

 

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“Don’t Disrupt My Negative Mood!”

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July 1, 2014

Our view of ourselves — and the world — creates our reality. When that’s negative and anticipates failure, one tends to draw to oneself “evidence” that confirms and reinforces it. That is, when people become fixed within their negative view of themselves, they recreate and reaffirm it to themselves, as they go along in life. And they resist — even oppose — any efforts to help them examine the roots of their view of themselves, and work towards, in effect, changing their inner world. Here’s a new study that gives some empirical underpinning to this. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study was conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

They found that people with low self esteem will often maintain their negative view of themselves and the world, and will oppose efforts to help them reframe how they think and feel. They will interpret critical feedback, romantic rejections, or unsuccessful job applications as evidence of their general unworthiness, according to the researchers. “People with low self-esteem want their loved ones to see them as they see themselves. As such, they are often resistant to their friends’ reminders of how positively they see them and reject what we call positive reframing-expressions of optimism and encouragement for bettering their situation,” said Professor Denise Marigold, the lead author of the study.

Science Daily‘s summary of the findings added: 

These individuals usually prefer negative validation, which conveys that the feelings, actions or responses of the recipient are normal, reasonable, and appropriate to the situation. So a friend could express understanding about the predicament or for the difficulty of a situation, and suggest that expressing negative emotions is appropriate and understandable.

The researchers found no evidence that positive reframing helps participants with low self-esteem. And in fact, the people providing support to friends with low self-esteem often felt worse about themselves when they attempted to cheer up their friend.

Some study participants indicated that supporting friends with low self-esteem could be frustrating and tiring. The researchers found that when these support providers used positive reframing instead of negative validation in these situations, they often believed the interaction went poorly, perhaps because the friends with low self-esteem were not receptive and the efforts didn’t work.

“If your attempt to point out the silver lining is met with a sullen reminder of the prevailing dark cloud, you might do best to just acknowledge the dark cloud and sympathize,” said Professor Marigold.

 

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Cynical? You’re Increasing Your Risk Of Dementia

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Science continues to demonstrate the active interconnections between all “parts” of ourselves and the physical/social environment that we experience and deal with throughout life. This is more than “brain-behavior” or “mind-body” connection: we are biological-psychological-spiritual-social beings. All dimensions of ourselves are constantly at play. A recent study reveals a new connection between a personality dimension — cynicism — and the likelihood of dementia. The research, published in the journal Neurology, found that people with high levels of “cynical distrust” were three times more likely to develop dementia than people with low levels of cynicism.

I think such research shows the system-wide impact of the emotional attitudes and perspectives about life that we consciously create and shape — or let take root from unexamined, unresolved life conflicts — upon our entire being.

The researchers, led by Anna-Maija Tolppanen at the University of Eastern Finland,  defined cynical distrust as the belief that others are mainly motivated by selfish concerns. They assessed level of cynicism by asking people how much they agreed with statements such as “I think most people would lie to get ahead,” “It is safer to trust nobody” and “Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.” The researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect dementia risk, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. Moreover, the link between cynicism and dementia was not accounted for by depression; they appear to be independent factors. Continue reading

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Materialism and Depression Are Linked

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Research conducted at Baylor University finds that the more materialistic you are, the more likely you are to be depressed and unsatisfied with life. It’s good to see another example of empirical research that confirms observational evidence. Published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the research suggests, according to the researchers, that materialistic people find it more difficult to be grateful for what they have, which causes them to become miserable.

The research was summarized in a news release from Baylor:

Gratitude is a positive mood. It’s about other people,” said study lead author Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D. “Previous research that we and others have done finds that people are motivated to help people that help them — and to help others as well. We’re social creatures, and so focusing on others in a positive way is good for our health.”

The research found that those who rated low on gratitude were more likely to be materialistic and less satisfied with life. Materialism tends to be “me-centered.” A material outlook focuses on what one does not have, impairing the ability to be grateful for what one already has, researchers said.

“Our ability to adapt to new situations may help explain why ‘more stuff’ doesn’t make us any happier,” said study co-author, James Roberts. “As we amass more and more possessions, we don’t get any happier, we simply raise our reference point. That new 2,500-square-foot house becomes the baseline for your desires for an even bigger house. It’s called the Treadmill of Consumption. We continue to purchase more and more stuff but we don’t get any closer to happiness, we simply speed up the treadmill.” Continue reading

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Walking Increases Creative Thinking

Screen shot 2014-04-29 at 1.48.01 PMAnother bit of research adds to the continuing empirical evidence for the interconnections of mind/body/spirit/behavior. This study found that the act of walking increases one’s creative thinking. In this study, Stanford University researchers examined creativity levels when people walked versus sitting. They found that one’s creative output increased by 60% when they walked. The research was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and described by May Wong in a Stanford University release. She writes:

Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, was known for his walking meetings. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also been seen holding meetings on foot. And perhaps you’ve paced back and forth on occasion to drum up ideas. A new study by Stanford researchers provides an explanation for this. Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter, according to a study co-authored by Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology, andDaniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

The study found Continue reading

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The Passing of Peter Matthiessen

Screen shot 2014-04-08 at 12.41.47 PMSo sad…the unexpected passing of Peter Matthiessen at 86. A great literary figure, non-fiction & fiction; Zen teacher, environmentalist, human rights advocate…

My personal contact with him was minor, really, and scattered over the years. But he’s always been a model for me – disciplined and focused; a gifted writer, keenly aware of the nuances of human character. Always generous with his time, I found him humble and wise; open and authentic…

The New York Times obituary appeared, ironically, on the same day a scheduled retrospective of his career and life was published in the Times Sunday Magazine. From the obit:

Peter Matthiessen, a roving author and naturalist whose impassioned nonfiction explored the remote endangered wilds of the world and whose prizewinning fiction often placed his mysterious protagonists in the heart of them, died on Saturday at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y. He was 86.

His son Alex said the cause was leukemia, which was diagnosed more than a year ago. Mr. Matthiessen’s final novel, “In Paradise,” is to be published on Tuesday by Riverhead Books. Mr. Matthiessen was one of the last survivors of a generation of American writers who came of age after World War II and who all seemed to know one another, socializing in New York and on Long Island’s East End as a kind of movable literary salon peopled by the likes of William Styron, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and E. L. Doctorow.

In the early 1950s, he shared a sojourn in Paris with fellow literary expatriates and helped found The Paris Review, a magazine devoted largely to new fiction and poetry. His childhood friend George Plimpton became its editor.

A rugged, weather-beaten figure who was reared and educated in privilege — an advantage that left him uneasy, he said — Mr. Matthiessen was a man of many parts: littérateur, journalist, environmentalist, explorer, Zen Buddhist, professional fisherman and, in the early 1950s, undercover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency in Paris. Only years later did Mr. Plimpton discover, to his anger and dismay, that Mr. Matthiessen had helped found The Review as a cover for his spying on Americans in France.

For the rest of the obit, click here. For the Sunday Times Magazine article, “Peter Matthiessen’s Homegoing,” click here.

 

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Meditation Changes The Expression of Your Genes

Screen shot 2014-04-01 at 10.54.46 AMEvidence continues to mount that how one’s genetic tendencies or vulnerabilities, are actually expressed — or not — is highly shaped by our life experiences, both those that we choose and those that are handed to us. A new study demonstrates how the practice of meditation affects the expression of genes that are involved in one’s stress response and inflammation, which underlie a wide range of health conditions, physically and mentally. It found evidence that meditation results in beneficial changes at the molecular level.

The research was reported in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology and conducted with meditators who engaged in an intensive 8-hour session of mindfulness meditation. They were compared with a group of 21 others who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities for the same period of time. Both groups gave blood samples before and after their activities. When researchers analyzed the samples at the molecular level, they found that the expression of genes which are involved in inflammation, and generally in the body’s stress-response, were down-regulated.

Moreover, tests of cortisol levels in participants’ saliva revealed that the expert meditators were able to recover quicker after an induced stressful event than the control group. In a summary of the research Richard Davidson, one of the authors of the study, said, “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice. Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression.”

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Why Your Therapist Should Go “Back to the Future”

Screen shot 2014-01-28 at 9.22.27 AMI recently spoke to psychology doctoral students about the innovative contributions of some pioneering psychoanalysts in New York and Washington and who collaborated during the 1930s -1950s. Several found commonalities in their work to expand traditional psychoanalytic understanding about emotional conflicts and their treatment. Some were European, having fled the Nazis; others, American. Among the most prominent were Erich FrommKaren Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan. Their ideas were often rejected—or attacked—by the psychoanalytic establishment back then.

After I spoke to the students about the contributions of those three, it struck me that both the emerging generation and current psychotherapists could help patients by reclaiming their legacy. And not just their creative mindset, but an overlooked, core part of their contributions.

That is, most therapists today recognize the significance of interpersonal and relationship issues that those three contributed: that our sense of self and much dysfunction is rooted in the web of relationships we experience from birth. That part isn’t overlooked. What many ignore is that Fromm, Horney and Sullivan also drew attention to social and cultural forces in our “outer” world, forces that shape—for better or worse—who we become: Our values, attitudes, personalities and level of emotional health or dysfunction. That dimension of their work became increasingly marginalized and disregarded over the decades, with few exceptions. That loss diminishes therapists’ capacity to discern the roots of patients’ conflicts and provide effective help.

Ironically, those early analysts’ insights about social conditioning are highly relevant to life conflicts in this second decade of the 21st Century—a time of great transition and turmoil affecting peoples’ relationships, career and life challenges. It would benefit psychotherapy patients if more therapists went “back to the future” in two ways:

First, Continue reading

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Why Reading Serious Fiction Benefits Your Psychological Development

Screen shot 2013-11-26 at 12.37.38 PMThe recent death of Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing—one of the most significant writers of our time, in my view—brought to mind that serious fiction spurs your spiritual and psychological development, your essential soul. It’s a gateway to “evolving” yourself during your lifetime, rather than stagnating within the person you’ve become. The latter path—which so many people descend into to—was captured by Norman Mailer in The Deer Park: “It is a law of life that one must grow, or else pay more for remaining the same.”

Delving into serious fiction engages you in the core human issues that everyone grapples with, consciously or unconsciously. The prime one is the question of, “What’s the meaning of life; of my life?

And, there are related issues concerning moral judgment, the impact of social conventions, conflicting paths in life, and so on. When you’re awakened — or threatened — by portrayals of those in good literature, you’re often forced to confront your own life choices and dilemmas in new ways, with new perspectives. You’re likely to resonate with the George Eliot quote, “It is never too late to be what you might have become.”

Lessing’s vast body of work is especially relevant to stimulating your soul’s evolution. Or, in Western psychology’s language, your “true self.” She portrayed the intertwined political, personal, sexual, cultural and ideological forces in people’s lives from pre-World War II, through the sexual and social revolution of the ’60s, to the present era. Among her novels is an interconnected series under the umbrella title, Children of Violence. Thery chronicled a woman’s character and life development via her social, sexual and political awakening.

Her final volume of the series, Continue reading

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The Impact of Child Abuse Extends Well Into Adulthood

Screen shot 2013-11-05 at 9.59.07 AMThe words “child abuse” are likely to conjure up horror stories that appear from time to time – physical beatings, a child locked in a closet or tied up for long periods; or the unimaginable – like Ariel Castro’s imprisonment of young girls. But in fact, abuse takes many forms, beyond the physical. Recent research finds that its impact is long lasting. It extends far into adulthood, where it affects both physical and mental health. As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

But this same study, combined with the findings of some other recent research, contains hopeful signs for healing and healthy growth following early abuse.

First, consider some less visible forms of abuse, beyond the physical, that can create lasting consequences. For example, parental neglect; indifference to the child’s needs or temperament; outright humiliation; deliberate denigration. All may be fueled by the parent’s own self-hatred, jealousy, or narcissism.

Examples range from the parent who leaves a child in the car or home alone for hours. Or the parent who rebuffs the child who excitedly says, “look at my new drawing!” or “see what I wrote for this school project!” and who receives a curt, “Don’t bother me now. I’ve got to finish up this report.” Or the parent who consistently and vocally praises one child, while ignoring or criticizing the child’s sibling. And there’s the classic, “You’ll never amount to anything!” Or, why can’t you be more like your sister/brother?”

I’ve heard them all, and more. All take a toll, and this new research study confirms that abuse has a long shelf life. It takes a continuing toll on both physical and mental health well into adulthood. Continue reading

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Why Unqualified People Get Selected, Hired and Promoted

Screen shot 2013-10-15 at 11.23.34 AMIf you’ve ever wondered why people make mistakes when hiring someone for a job, or selecting a candidate for university admissions, this new study by Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino and her colleagues sheds some light on why that happens. They call it the “fundamental attribution error” — the tendency to make snap judgments about a person’s innate characteristics, which often prove incorrect.

Published in the journal PLOS One, the study was described in a Harvard Business School publication, “Working Knowledge.” The study asked, “Why do businesses evaluate candidates solely on past job performance, failing to consider the job’s difficulty? Why do university admissions officers focus on high GPAs, discounting influence of easy grading standards?”

The research found that the fundamental attribution error “is so deeply rooted in our decision making that not even highly trained people-evaluators, such as hiring managers and school admissions officers, can defeat its effects. One of the consequences is that you end up admitting people who should not be admitted, and rejecting people who should not be rejected.”

Click here for the full report.

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The Republican Party’s Descent Into Unreality Undermines Our Two-Party System

Screen shot 2013-08-06 at 10.33.14 AMThat we lack an effective two-party political system today is a significant loss. The Republican Party has been on a downward slope towards unreality and irrelevancy, thanks to the right-wing element that’s taken over the party and marginalized the remnants of the GOP of Dole, Bush the elder; even Reagan. In his recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman writes, “The sad truth is that the modern G.O.P. is lost in fantasy, unable to participate in actual governing.” He adds, “I’m not talking about policy substance. I may believe that Republicans have their priorities all wrong, but that’s not the issue here. Instead, I’m talking about their apparent inability to accept very basic reality constraints, like the fact that you can’t cut overall spending without cutting spending on particular programs, or the fact that voting to repeal legislation doesn’t change the law when the other party controls the Senate and the White House.”

Krugman highlights a serious and sad condition that exists, today — with yet-to-be-seen consequences. Click here for his complete essay, “Republicans Against Reality.”

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Why “Learning” Compassion Leads to Greater Altruism

Screen shot 2013-06-08 at 10.12.13 AMIt’s good to see research that demonstrates our capacity to awaken and evolve our consciousness and become more fully “human” – in our mental perspectives, our emotions and our behavior towards others. Two recent strands of such research illustrate this. One is the increasing, legitimate research on the beneficial powers of psychedelic drugs, especially psilocybin and MDMA (ecstasy), being conducted after a long stretch of unwarranted legal prohibition. The other strand provides accumulating knowledge of how we are able to alter our brain, our attitudes and conduct through conscious effort and practice. And, that meditation is powerful vehicle for this.

For example, new research demonstrates that you can “learn” compassion through specific meditative practices fairly quickly; and, intriguingly, that teaching yourself to become more compassionate directly translates to altruistic behavior. This latest study was summarized in a University of Wisconsin press release. Conducted at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, founded by Richard Davidson, the leading researcher in this field, it investigated whether you can train adults to become more compassionate; and whether that results in greater altruistic behavior and changes in related brain activity. Well, you can, and it does. Continue reading

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New Research into Psychedelic Drugs and their Positive Benefits

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 11.02.06 AMFor decades, now, research into responsible medical and psychological uses of psychedelic drugs has been forbidden by law. Recently, however, some research into psilocybin (magic mushrooms), MDNA (ecstasy) and other chemicals has begun in university research settings. It’s become allowable by a slight shift of laws towards more sanity: allowing research that can aid healing of emotional traumas and create positive development in one’s attitudes and behavior. This is a welcomed trend. Some recent studies are described in an article by Don Lattin, “The Second Coming of Psychedelics,” in Spirituality & Health. He writes, “What’s new is that these powerful mind-altering substances are coming out of the drug counterculture and back into the mainstream laboratories of some of the world’s leading universities and medical centers. Research projects and pilot studies at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Purdue University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, are probing their mind-altering mysteries and healing powers. Psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and Ecstasy are still illegal for street use and cannot be legally prescribed by doctors, but university administrators, government regulatory agencies, and private donors are once again giving the stamp of approval—and the money needed—for research into beneficial uses for this “sacred medicine.” For the full article, click here.

Similarly, a recent article by April M. Short in AlterNet describes research reported at the conference of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). She reports that “Today, in addition to other psychedelics and cannabis, MAPS continues to study the healing potential of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy on psychological and emotional damage caused by sexual assault, war, violent crime, and other traumas.” Continue reading

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How Managing Your Emotions Affects Anxiety

Screen shot 2013-05-25 at 10.55.04 AMPeople who anticipate and plan how they will deal positively with a difficult challenge or problem that they’re facing are likely to experience less anxiety, according to a new study. Here’s some empirical evidence that shows the damaging affects of denial, evasion or repression of troubling emotions — something well-known from clinical experience. Reported in the journal Emotion, the research suggests that the way you regulate your emotions, in bad times and in good, can influence whether — or how much — you suffer from anxiety. In a series of questionnaires, researchers asked 179 healthy men and women how they managed their emotions and how anxious they felt in various situations. The team analyzed the results to see if different emotional strategies were associated with more or less anxiety.

The study revealed that those who engage in an emotional regulation strategy Continue reading

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How Music Improves Your Mood And Outlook On Life

Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 11.14.27 AMIf you’ve ever found that listening to music elevates your mood, you’re right. New research found that feelings of happiness increased when participants in the study listened to upbeat music, and were asked to focus on lifting their mood. A related study demonstrated that listening to happy or sad music can also change how you perceive the world. While these studies show the positive impact music has upon your mental and emotional state, they also underscore the capacity we have to alter our inner experience through conscious effort and focus — as recent research on meditation and brain function has demonstrated.

In the first study, reported in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers at the University of Missouri found that “Our work provides support for what many people already do — listen to music to improve their moods,” according to lead author Yuna Ferguson. “Although pursuing personal happiness may be thought of as a self-centered venture, research suggests that happiness relates to a higher probability of socially beneficial behavior, better physical health, higher income and greater relationship satisfaction.” In two studies by Ferguson, participants successfully improved their moods in the short term and boosted their overall happiness over a two week period. The study’s co-author, Kennon Sheldon, added that the research “…suggests that we can intentionally seek to make mental changes leading to new positive experiences of life.” This study is summarized in Science Daily.

The other study, conducted by researchers at the University of Groningen, found that Continue reading

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The Psychopath’s Brain — How It’s “Wired” Differently

Screen shot 2013-05-11 at 5.25.31 PMIn recent years several research studies have found that the brains of people described as “psychopaths,” who behave in ways that most would find horrendous — torturing, murdering, or simply cheating people for their own gain, regardless of how it hurts others — seem to be “wired” differently from most people. Their brain functions appear to diminish the capacity for empathy, remorse or judgement about the consequences of their actions. In effect, they aren’t able to feel concern for others, or to demonstrate it when acting on aggressive emotion or desires. And that makes such people particularly dangerous, even though on the surface they may feign “normalcy” and even know how to behave in ways that appear socially engaged — even charming — think Ted Bundy, or currently, Ariel Castro, the Cleveland kidnap and torture suspect.

The most recent study sheds more light on how this occurs.. Previous research has found dysfunction of specific brain regions, such as the amygdala, associated with emotions, fear and aggression, and the orbitofrontal cortex, the region which deals with decision making. Continue reading

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More Stress — For More Workers

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 3.25.26 PMIt seems like every other day there’s a new survey or research study that shows – again – how stressed-out American workers are, at all levels of career; both men and women. This latest report, by Harris Interactive for Everest College, finds that about 83% of workers report feeling stressed by their jobs. It’s a number that keeps rising, and the usual sources are multiple: pay, too much to handle with too few resources; troublesome co-workers, and work-life balance issues. These are valid sources of stress, but I think these periodic surveys fail to tap into more pervasive, underlying sources of stress and conflict at work: boredom; lack of mesh between the person’s skills and the role; an unhealthy, unsupportive management culture; outright abusive, arrogant and narcissistic bosses, and so forth. I’ve written about some of these issues in previous posts, and plan to address some new versions of these underlying sources of conflict and stress in some future essays.

The current survey was summarized in a Forbes article, by Susan Adams. She writes:

Some 83% of American workers say they feel stressed out by their jobs, up from 73% a year ago, according to a new study by Harris Interactive for Everest College. The No. 1 reason workers feel stressed, according to the survey: low pay. This is the third year of the survey and the third year that less- than-adequate paychecks were the top stressor for workers. The study was conducted by phone among 1,000 adults between Feb. 21 and March 3.

While pay was the biggest source of stress last year, Continue reading

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6 Keys to Well-Being and Growth Relevant to Life in Today’s Unpredictable World

Screen shot 2013-04-23 at 11.10.31 AMJim, who’s in his early 40s, consulted me about a troubling dilemma. He told me that he’s worked on himself for years, both with and without the help of therapists, and that he’s “tamed many demons” from the traumas and family dysfunctions he experienced growing up. He’s now living a stable and reasonably successful life. Yet he finds himself asking “Now what?” and “Is this it?” He explained that he’s learned to manage and cope pretty well with the residue of conflicts that had, in the past, derailed successful relationships as well as his career. Nevertheless, he feels trapped by the past actions that continue to have a shelf life. And, especially, he wants to experience a more fulfilling, expansive existence, beyond the “flat-lined comfortableness” that Cheryl, a 38-year-old small-business owner, described about her own life.

They and others reflect the impact of living in today’s world, especially since the new century began. Our lives now exist within a new normal of uncertainty and turmoil, of unpredictable events and rapid social change, as well as ever-evolving technology that infiltrates every aspect of daily life. This new environment raises an important question: What describes a fulfilling, positive and psychologically healthy life today? Moreover, what can you do to create it?

That’s where our traditional thinking and prescriptions fall short. Continue reading

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If Everyone Is Disturbed, Then Who’s Healthy?

Screen shot 2013-04-01 at 8.51.31 AMFollowing a recent talk to a group of business people, a man cornered me and said, “I work hard, I’m pretty successful, I have stable, second marriage and kids who are doing well…and yet I often feel unsatisfied with my life and don’t know why. Am I disturbed?”

His question reminded me of an ongoing controversy over the forthcoming revision of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5. Many are criticizing it for turning normal variations of human emotions and behavior into mental disorders. That’s likely to generate more diagnoses for depression or ADD, for example. Its most prominent critic is Allen Frances, the psychiatrist who chaired the committee that drafted the previous edition. Among his and others’ criticisms is that the revisions will lead to more drugs to “treat” ever-expanding definitions of mental disorder.

This drift towards defining mental disorder upwards is troubling. But I think it masks another important, but largely ignored, problem on the flip side: There’s no good definition of what psychological health looks like in today’s world, in contrast to disturbance.
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The Power of Concentration

Screen shot 2013-02-28 at 11.09.56 AMIt’s good to see the growing convergence between Eastern perspectives and Western empirical research. Here’s another example: the power of concentration via the practice of “mindfulness,” from the Buddhist perspective — how it’s affirmed through research studies. In this essay by Maria Konnikova in the New York Times, she uses the example of how Sherlock Holmes trained his mind to concentrate on solving a case. He used, in effect, the practices of mindfulness meditation. She writes:

Meditation and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. But perhaps they should evoke a very different picture: a man in a deerstalker, puffing away at a curved pipe, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself. The world’s greatest fictional detective is someone who knows the value of concentration, of “throwing his brain out of action,” as Dr. Watson puts it. He is the quintessential unitasker in a multitasking world. Click here for the complete essay.

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How Much Psychological Research Is Invalid?

Screen shot 2013-02-23 at 11.21.53 AMI often cite empirical research to support my arguments or interpretations of current personal/social/cultural issues, but I try to weed out research that’s probably invalid. One glaring reason is that most research is conducted on college students and the results applied to the entire adult population. And now, there’s also outright falsehood, as this report in Live Science documents:

From the report: In the wake of several scandals in psychology research, scientists are asking themselves just how much of their research is valid.

In the past 10 years, dozens of studies in the psychology field have been retracted, and several high-profile studies have not stood up to scrutiny when outside researchers tried to replicate the research.

By selectively excluding study subjects or amending the experimental procedure after designing the study, researchers in the field may be subtly biasing studies to get more positive findings. And once research results are published, journals have little incentive to publish replication studies, which try to check the results.

That means the psychology literature may be littered with effects, or conclusions, that aren’t real. [Oops! 5 Retracted Science Studies] Continue reading

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Why “Wanting” Material Things Is More Pleasurable Than “Having” Them

Screen shot 2013-02-08 at 11.00.36 AMSome new research shows that people who are driven by materialistic goals — getting and having material things — are more turned-on by the desire for acquiring them than actually possessing them. This underscores, I think, the essential emptiness that one ultimately feels when dominated by acquiring more and more — an endless quest anyway — and by defining one’s self-worth and status by the possessions one accumulates. The gap between one’s outer and inner life will take a toll, ultimately.

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research and summarized in Medical News Today as follows: Continue reading

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The Harmful Effects Of Loneliness Are Rooted In Our Culture

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A recent psychotherapy patient, Ms. A., tells me that she’s felt lonely throughout her life. Her intimate relationships have been brief; her friends, few. In recent years she’s been suffering from one physical ailment after another. Another patient, Mr. B, has an active social life with friends and business associates, a long-term marriage and an extended family. Despite this socially full life, he complains of feeling lonely “right in the midst of everyone around me.” He, too, suffers from frequent illness.

Some new research finds that loneliness can harm your immune system and set the stage for a range of illness. Of course, our mind/body/spirit is all one. Each “part” affects each other “part,” so that’s no surprise. But there’s a lot more to the story. People like Ms. A and Mr. B appear different, yet are alike in other ways. That is, some people’s loneliness reflects an absence of positive relationships. That, in turn, may be rooted in long-term emotional issues that interfere with forming and maintaining relationships. Yet others have a full social life but feel lonely anyway. These apparently different situations raise a question: What promotes or creates the conditions for loneliness in today’s society? And, what would help alleviate the painful isolation and disconnection that some feel, regardless of the extent of their social connections? Continue reading

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Taking Down The Christmas Tree…With Elvis And My Kids

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 11.26.22 AMAs I walked through the lobby of my office building the other day following some time off during the holidays, I noticed that the Christmas tree, the assorted little snowmen, the lights and other decorations were still up. I had a flashback to the time, many years ago, when my young children and I would gather together to put up — and then take down — the Christmas tree. It had become our little tradition. Until, that is, when it was no longer; when I had to dismantle it myself but just let it sit there, untouched. For along time.

Here’s what happened: From my children’s earliest years, on through my divorce and years as a single parent, we would gather together for a small party to decorate the tree. We’d join again to take it down on New Year’s Day, sort of like bookends to the holiday season; a transition into the new calendar year. We accompanied both events with playing songs from my old Elvis’ Christmas album, some treats for my kids and a big glass of wine for me. But over the years, my children grew and their interest faded. And it was hard for me to recognize and accept that.

I may sound like a sentimental, aging midlife father, but I still smile to myself recalling how enjoyable our tradition was for us for many years. It went like this: A couple of weeks before Christmas, after we set the tree up in its stand, we would retrieve the large shipping carton that contained the ornaments and lights from the previous year. But before doing anything, we would bring out some homemade cookies for the children and some good Bordeaux for me. And then, to initiate our decorating party, I would begin playing Elvis’ old Christmas album — an original copy, which I had bought as a teenager.

Though now in delicate condition, the old LP’s sound remained clear and vibrant on the stereo. My kids liked Elvis’ version of classic songs, like “Here Comes Santa Claus,” but also enjoyed his more adult rock numbers, like “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me” or “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” my own favorites.

As Elvis sang, we began Continue reading

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How Your Karma Can Undermine Midlife Renewal

Screen shot 2013-08-17 at 9.38.21 AMAs the 78 million baby boomers have segued into midlife, a noticeable shift towards a sense of renewal, new growth and new possibilities has taken root. That’s a welcome contrast to the old view of steady, inevitable decline and loss. Yet there’s a real danger that can cripple or undermine your prospects for midlife vitality and positive growth.

To explain, let’s recognize, first, how inspiring it is for midlifers to learn about ways in which midlifers forge new paths towards growth and wellbeing in their lives. Some create new energy, passion and commitment in their intimate relationships, as I’ve described in some posts here. Some find other sources of personal connection without a partner. Others find new directions in their work and creative expression – whether in a redirected career or embarking on service-oriented work, such as promoted by Encore.org. For example, baby boomers who leave their careers to do work that involves helping others report feelings of growth, connection and service. Embarking on new directions takes courage and risk, as Marci Alboher recently described in the New York Times, but that “..the payoff is continuing to grow and expand your life rather than stagnate and decline.”

All of the above are significant, positive shifts of consciousness and action. So what’s the danger? From my experience working with midlife baby boomers (and from my own challenges, along the way) I identify two pitfalls that can undermine your renewal and continued growth: One is failure to recognize or deal with inevitable, long-term consequences of actions whose tentacles live on, into your future: your karma, the law of cause and effect; of actions and their consequences. The other is not knowing what enables you to “reboot;” to change your ongoing karma from this point forward. That is, knowing how to interrupt any continuing negative consequences of actions in your present life.

Facing your Karma

 Your past actions remain a part of you. Continue reading

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Being in Awe Can Expand Time and Enhance Well-Being

It’s good to see a research study confirm and therefore give more credence to observational or anecdotal experiences. In this case, the study looked at the impact of experiences or moments that pull you out of your usual focus on yourself and your own daily life issues; and propel you into expanding your consciousness and sense of connection with larger realms, the larger fabric of the universe that we’re a part of.

This study was summarized in Science Daily, from the journal Psychological Science:

It doesn’t matter what we’ve experienced — whether it’s the breathtaking scope of the Grand Canyon, the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis, or the exhilarating view from the top of the Eiffel Tower — at some point in our lives we’ve all had the feeling of being in a complete and overwhelming sense of awe.

Awe seems to be a universal emotion, but it has been largely neglected by scientists — until now.

Psychological scientists Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management devised a way to study this feeling of awe in the laboratory. Across three different experiments, they found that jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer time to help others.

The researchers found that the effects that awe has on decision-making and well-being can be explained by awe’s ability to actually change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down. Experiences of awe help to brings us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.

Now that’s awesome.

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Music And Life…

Some interesting reflections on how music can impact your life, from Mark Edmundson, Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and author of Why Read? This essay, “Can Music Save Your Life?,” was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He writes:

Who hasn’t at least once had the feeling of being remade through music? Who is there who doesn’t date a new phase in life to hearing this or that symphony or song? I heard it – we say – and everything changed. I heard it, and a gate flew open and I walked through. But does music constantly provide revelation or does it have some other effects, maybe less desirable?

For those of us who teach, the question is especially pressing. Our students tend to spend hours a day plugged into their tunes. Yet, at least in my experience, they are reluctant to talk about music. They’ll talk about sex, they’ll talk about drugs but rock ‘n’ roll, or whatever else they may be listening to, is off-limits. What’s going on there?

When I first heard Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, not long after it came out, I was amazed. At the time, I liked to listen to pop on the radio, the Beatles were fine, the Stones were better. But nothing I’d heard until then prepared me for Dylan’s song. It had all the fluent joy of a pop number, but something else was going on too. This song was about lyrics: language. Dylan wasn’t chanting some truism about being in love or wanting to get free or wasted for the weekend. He had something to say. He was exasperated. He was pissed off. He’d clearly been betrayed by somebody, or a whole nest of somebodies, and he was letting them have it. His words were exuberantly weird and sometimes almost embarrassingly inventive and I didn’t know what they all meant. “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat / Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat.” Chrome horse? Diplomat? What?

I sensed Dylan’s disdain and his fury, but the song suggested way more than it declared. This was a sidewinder of a song, intense and angry, but indirect and riddling too. I tried to hear every line. Dylan’s voice seemed garbled, and our phonograph wasn’t new. I can still see myself with my head cocked to the spindle, eyes clenched, trying to shut out the room around me as I strained to grab the words from the harsh melodious wind of the song. “Ain’t it hard when you discovered that / He really wasn’t where it’s at / After he took from you everything he could steal.”

Click here to read the full piece.

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Skilled Liars Make Great Lie Detectors

This is sort of in the “takes one to know one” department: A new study published in Frontiers of Neuroscience finds that people who are skilled at lying are also skilled at detecting lies of others. The researchers found that “participants whose lies were harder to spot tended to do better at spotting whether other participants were lying….” And, “this study is the first to provide evidence that the capacity to detect lies and the ability to deceive others are associated.”

The research was summarized in the British Psychological Society’s blog on brain and behavior:

Frank Abagnale Jr, the confidence trickster whose escapades inspired the hit film “Catch Me If You Can”, later became a security consultant for the FBI. There’s intuitive logic to the agency’s recruitment strategy – if you want to catch con artists, who better to spot them than a master con artist. But does this logic apply at a more basic level? Do skilled liars really make skilled lie detectors?

Surprisingly, psychologists haven’t investigated this idea before. Dozens of studies have shown that most people are very poor at detecting lies, and other research has shown that the propensity to lie is partly inherited, but no-one’s looked to see if good liars make good lie spotters.

NowGordon Wright and his colleagueshave done just that, recruiting 51 participants (27 women; mean age 25) to take part in a competitive group task. None of them had met before. Arranged in groups of 5 or 6, the participants took turns to spend about 20 seconds telling the group their position on a social issue, such as whether smoking should be allowed in public places or whether they were in favour of reality TV. Their true opinions had been reported in private to the researchers earlier. On each round, cards handed to the participants told them which opinion to share with the group and whether to tell the truth or lie. The task of the rest of the group was to judge whether the speaker was lying or not. Fifty pounds was up for grabs for the best liar and the best lie spotter.

The key finding was that participants whose lies were harder to spot tended to do better at spotting whether other participants were lying (the correlation was -0.35, with an effect size of 0.7, which is usually considered large). “As far as we are aware,” the researchers said, “this study is the first to provide evidence that the capacity to detect lies and the ability to deceive others are associated.”

This result begs the question – what underlying psychological processes grant a person skill at lying and lie spotting? It wasn’t IQ or emotional intelligence – the researchers tested for that, but they don’t yet know much more. “It is clear,” they said, “that identification of the precise nature of the proposed ‘deception-general’ ability is an important aim for deception research, and that further research should be devoted to this question.”

 

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Awakening Your True Self Within Your False Self

Some readers have asked me to elaborate more on what I wrote inmy previous post, regarding the self within the self. Here, I explain that a bit more, emphasizing the growing links between Western science and Eastern perspectives about consciousness and the physical universe.

In the previous post I mentioned that George EliotwroteinMiddlemarch: Its never too late to be what you might have been. Of course, it can be hard to realize what that is, exactly, especially when what you might have beenyour true selfhas become smothered by the life events and experiences that formed your external, false self. Nevertheless, most people have glimmers of awareness, moments in which you experienced the real you. Many occur at key turning points in your life when you chose, or were persuaded, to go this direction vs. that.

You cant reverse times arrow, but you can revisit turning points and learn something about yourself that you might reclaim and incorporate into who you can become. Within this perspective, an inherent, true self exists within your external self. And, this underlying self is part of a vast, interconnected whole that our minds, bodies and spirits always know at some level.

This perspective reflects a confluence of several streams of new knowledge and thinking. It includes research aboutpersonalityand behavior change; the distinction between consciousness, the mind, thebrain, and their relation to consciousness; and knowledge of the structure of the universe, of which our organisms are fragments, intelligent stardust, animated by a life force that seeks expression itself through our evolution.

Interestingly, this new research and emerging viewpoints are joining Western science with ancient Eastern teachings. They indicate Continue reading

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Life’s Turning Points: The Mystery of the Self Within Your Self

While driving in my car the other day I heard an old song that instantly transported me to a vivid scene in my life. Im a not-yet teenager, sitting in the kitchen and having an after-school snack. I reach for the radio to tune in a Yankees baseball game, as I usually did (back then, games still played in the daytime). But for the first time, I hesitated. Instead, I turned the dial to a rock and roll station.

I recall feeling at that moment that something had just shifted in my sense of who I was; who I was becoming. I believe it was more than just the rumblings of impendingadolescence, or thinking about that new girl in class. It was a new awareness about who this self was, inside me; that I was no longer just the person I thought I was a moment before. It was a turning point in my consciousness about myself.

We experience many turning points in our lives, whenever we shift direction this way or that. Perhaps a decision about a relationship, or what interests to pursue. Maybe about an educational orcareerchoice. Some turning points are conscious, others less so; some may be imposed by family or other persuasive people. But all involve turningawayfrom one path, andtowardsanother. And they shape theselfthat you experience and define as you, along the way.

In my work, I often ask people to describe what they think were the positive and negative consequences from their key turning points, because theres always a message contained in what you turned away from, or towards. Its a message from Continue reading

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The End Of Mental Health — And Why That’s Good

The idea of mental healthas we know ithas reached a dead end. It doesn’t describe much of anything relevant to people’s lives today. If you Google “mental health,” most of what comes up describes mentalillness, not mentalhealth. Both practitioners and researchers focus more onunderstandingand treating emotional disturbance, than on describing what health is or how to build it.

That’s good, actually, because it opens the door to a needed, broad re-thinking of what psychological health looks like in today’s worldin your emotions, thoughts, attitudes, values and behavior. In this post I explain what’s brought us to this dead-end, and I sketch some features of psychological health that reflect new challenges and realities of today’s tumultuous world.

First, let’s look at why we’re at this dead-end. The aims of treatment for emotional conflictswhether via medications,psychotherapyor a combination of the twohave been, in essence, goodmanagement, coping and adaptation. That is, management of emotional conflicts that create dysfunction and symptoms like depression and anxiety. Coping withstressor sustained conflict in your work, relationships and other parts of your life. And good adaptation or adjustment to the norms, values and conventional behavior of the society or group you’re part of. Thosegoalsare useful, per se, but there are three problems with them. One is that Continue reading
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Overcome the Maladies of Midlife By Transforming What “Loss” and “Change” Mean

Despite the volumes of books and magazine articles advising midlife baby boomers how to prolong or renew their health, happiness and vitality, I continue to hear many of them tell me about feelings of stagnation and loss. Or worse, a sense of being on “a long slide home,” as one 50-something put it.

For example:

  • You happened to catch an old episode of“Sesame Street”or“Mister Rogers”on TV, and you felt engulfed by a wave of nostalgia and loss over your children, who are now grown and building their own lives without you.
  • You worry about whether your career has peaked, especially when you’re reminded every day of the hordes of younger people coming up right behind you — or who’ve now moved ahead of you.
  • You’re divorced and dealing with new challenges as a single person.
  • Or, you’re married/with a partner, but feelings of passion and intimacy have faded like autumn leaves.
  • You’re stressed about your financial future in your later years, given our economic uncertainty.

I think there’s a core reason why such feelings and experiences aren’t helped all that much by the midlife guides and programs out there: We’ve learned to experience midlife through Continue reading

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Why Psychotherapists Fail To Help People In Today’s World

Many people who enter psychotherapy today aren’t helped at all. Some end up more troubled than when they began treatment. And ironically, some therapists are examples of the kinds of problems they’re trying to treat. In this post I explain why that is and how to become a more informed�consumer when considering psychotherapy.

The popularity of the TV show “In Treatment” is one indicator that there’s a large, market for psychotherapy, today. Despite the decline of the more orthodox psychoanalytic treatment – the kind that Daphne Merkin described in a recent�New York Times article about her years in treatment – people continue to seek competent professional help for dealing with and resolving the enormous emotional challenges and conflicts that impact so many lives in current times. Beyond healing, they want to grow their capacity for healthy relationships and successful lives.

Many skilled and competent therapists are out there. (I use term “therapist” to describe psychologists, psychiatrists and clinical social workers – professionally trained and licensed practitioners.) Moreover, research shows that psychotherapy can be very effective. Either alone, or sometimes in combination with the judicious use of�medication.

Yet so often practitioners don’t help people very much. Some struggle for years in therapy with one practitioner after another, and never seem to make any progress. Others resolve some conflicts, but then are hit with others that hadn’t been addressed.

I see three reasons for this situation. One is rooted in the�kind of people therapists tend to be today. Their personal values, social attitudes and how they relate to conventional norms and behavior contrast in several ways with those of the “pioneers” from Freud’s era. That contrast impedes effective help.

Then there are the�kinds of problems that people experience. They’ve evolved over the decades, but especially since 9-11 and the near-depression that began in the fall of 2008. But many therapists aren’t in synch with the impact of that shift. They fail to understand how�21st Century conditions impact emotional lives and conflicts. Many are clueless about how life in today’s world interweaves with the dysfunctions or family conflicts that patients bring with them into their adult lives.

The third reason is the therapists’ vision of the�goals of treatment; what a healthy outcome or resolution of conflicts should look like, and how to get there. Many remain stuck within an older model – helping patients better manage, cope with or adjust to change and�traumas; build�resilience and restore equilibrium. But that’s no longer possible: Our�new environment is one of “non-equilibrium” and unpredictability. That creates new emotional and life challenges across the board — for intimate relationships, careers and for engaging with a changing society – the “remix” that America is now becoming.

The Psychotherapist – Past and Present

The early analysts were pioneers, adventurous explores of uncharted terrain. They were trying to uncover how human�personality and�unconscious passions evolve within people to create symptoms and dysfunctions. They courageously risked their careers when they called attention to the impact of repressed�sexuality. Aside from the accuracy of early theories about the causes of emotional disturbance, the practitioners’ aim was to reduce suffering. They wanted to help people develop more love, reason and independence – albeit within the context of the norms of their era that they, themselves, accepted.

Moreover, most were well-read in literature, history and culture, more so than today’s practitioners. That gave them a broad outlook and perspective on life. For example, Freud’s writings are filled with references from Shakespeare, Goethe and other great works of literature, drama and mythology. He drew on their themes, plots and character portrayals to help illuminate and understand the motives and�moral dilemmas underlying his patients’ emotional problems.

Most contemporaries and followers of�Freud possessed a radical spirit. They wanted to uncover the truth beneath patient’s symptoms; see beneath the surface. They shared the view that successful treatment was based on a love of the truth; that is, emotional reality. And that it must preclude any kind of sham,�deception or illusion.

Of course, Freud and his contemporaries interpreted their patients’ problems in many ways that were flawed. They made assumptions about psychological health that were part of the prevailing values and norms of post-Victorian, early-20th Century society – a largely patriarchal culture. For example, most assumed that a normal, successful life derived from being well-adjusted to those norms.

Nevertheless, their spirit of truth-seeking, rooted in broad understanding of human culture, literature and history, has become lost. Today’s practitioners tend to be�technicians, looking for the right technique that will treat the patient’s symptoms. Many tend to be cautious, often disengaged and detached people in their manner and interactions with patients. They are largely ignorant of philosophical,�religious, cultural and socio-economic forces that shape people’s psychological development, especially those in non-Western societies. And yet, all of those forces in all parts of the globe profoundly impact how and why we learn to think and behave as we do. Much current world conflict reflects those differences that define what we think in “normal” or “disturbed.”

Many therapists today simply assume that adjusting to prevailing values and norms reflects psychological health. Now that’s desirable for those whose conflicts have disabled them from minimally successful functioning. But it misses the mark for those whose conflicts are linked with their successful adaptation to begin with. The therapist then fails to explore their patients’ definition of “success” – how it’s shaped their�career and life goals, their conflicts and disappointments.

Some therapists will spend inordinate time ferreting out tiny truths about the patient’s family and�childhood, without figuring out which have relevance to the person’s conflicts today, and which don’t. They may ignore the impact of trade-offs and compromises patients made as they created their sexual and intimate relationship patterns

Overall, today’s practitioners tend to�share in, rather than�critique and examine, the social norms, values and anxieties of today’s world. Too often, they uncritically accept good functioning per se, and conventional values like power-seeking, as psychologically healthy. This blinds them from recognizing that “normal” adjustment can mask repressed feelings of self-betrayal, self-criticism, and the desire to be freer, more alive. All of those longings can conflict with or oppose parental expectations or the pressures from social class membership.

Emotional Conflicts In Today’s World

People’s problems have evolved. Up through World War II and into the 1950s-early 60s symptoms that were more typical of Freud’s time — hysteria or specific phobias, for example – diminished. People wanted help for fitting in with the apparent paths to success and�happiness and for dealing with conflicts that interfered with or limited it. Therapy often addressed things like guilt, inhibition, the need for approval, and dealing with the conflicts generated by defined, rigid roles for men and women. Desires or longings that deviated too much from the prevailing norms were troublesome and created conflicts, often unconscious.

The popular TV show “Mad Men” is a good portrayal of conflicts of that era, especially issues of�identity, longing for an authentic self and�gender�roles. At the same time, the men enjoyed the surface appearance of power and control. And women chafed against the limits imposed by gender roles, as the women’s movement began to arise.

The period of social upheaval of the late 60s and 70s created more openly conscious conflict and struggle for many people. The theme, here, was seeking more freedom from oppressive relationships and social constraints. Some therapists were able to address these issues in helpful ways. But others were bound by their own uncritical embrace of the very norms their patients wanted help to free themselves from.

Partly because of that disconnect, many�psychotherapy patients were attracted to the vision of personal development offered by the rising “new age” movement, although its gurus generally lacked any depth of understanding about emotional conflicts or psychological development.

Then, from the 1980s to about 2000 more men and women sought help to create more personally fulfilling, engaged relationships, and more personal meaning from their work. The�costs and limits of success became visible in patients who wanted help to create greater work-life “balance” while preserving their relationships and their upward climb in their careers. Dealing with the emotional fallout of the dot-com bubble burst added another dimension to these stresses. During this period of greater fulfillment-seeking, more people turned to�spiritual development as a companion to or substitute for traditional therapy, especially via older traditions like Buddhism and other Eastern practices.

And now, in the current era, emotional conflicts spring more from the psychological impact of our nonlinear, unpredictable, highly interconnected world. For example, financial and�career uncertainties. Changing practices in romantic/sexual relationships. Facing one’s responsibilities to fellow inhabitants of the planet, and for sustaining the planet for future generations. The psychological impact of these issues interacts with the legacy of family conflicts and their dysfunctions that people carry with them into the adult world. It’s a�new universe of potential pain and confusion that people are now struggling with.

What Helps?

Therapists need a vision of what healing and emotional health looks like, today, and how to help the patient achieve it. And therapists must engage in self-examination about their own values and attitudes. That’s one safeguard against rationalizing failure to help their patients examine these same issues within themselves. Otherwise, the therapist may collude with a patient to avoid confronting issues relevant to both of them. Then, it becomes like a Shakespearian play where the motives of the characters are visible to members of the audience, but the characters themselves remain oblivious to their�unconscious motives that propel them along.

Therapists bear a responsibility to help patients uncover the deeper truth about their life dilemmas – not just continue to detail all of its manifestations. Like the branches of a tree, all of them spring from the same trunk, the same roots. For one person, that might be a deep, unconscious desire to remain protected and secure like a baby. Or a desire to destroy one’s father or mother. It could be intense lust for power and domination. Exposing and confronting that core of truth can be liberating, like in fairy tales when the power of the�evil spirit is broken when you can call it by its name. At least you then have an opportunity to do something about it.

Being a more personally engaged therapist is also important today. People are increasingly turned off by therapists who maintain the old manner of silence and detachment. Or whose rigid focus invokes in patients the same unmet longings for nurturance and acceptance that patients may have experienced in their families to begin with.

The traditional practice is for the therapist to divulge little or nothing about him or herself. That’s been fading, especially in a Google world. More are drawn to people like the psychiatrist played by Gabriel Byrne on “In Treatment.” While that TV show has elements of a soap opera and the therapy sessions often sound like “life-management” discussions, the psychiatrist shows more openness and flexibility with his patients.

The viewer sees him as a human, himself, struggling with his own personal issues. People like that openness. It’s more consistent with psychoanalyst Steven Kuchuck’s�comment about Merkin’s article in�The New York Times. He described the greater appeal and benefit of practitioners who emphasize “…greater patient-analyst�collaboration, the analyst’s selective self-disclosure and other techniques designed to address many of the concerns and limitations Merkin has experienced…

In addition to personal qualities, therapists who are familiar with the broad impact of our post-9-11, post-economic meltdown world on people’s mental health are better positioned to help their patients. In addition to knowing that people’s emotional issues are tightly interwoven with global political, social and economic forces as I described above, it’s helpful for therapists to be tuned-in to demographic and other changes that are pulling many in our culture to move beyond motives of purely self-interest, and towards serving the�common good.

Similarly, too many practitioners tend to be sadly uniformed about the realities of life in business and career world — the political realities, the politics and conflicting agendas; the challenges of transparency, collaboration, and�innovation — all needed for success. Without that awareness it’s hard for them to�differentiate problems that people bring with them from in their�attachment issues and family relationships, from those that are reactive to confusing, demoralizing, non-linear challenges and constantly shifting goal posts in their workplace.

It’s also valuable for therapists to be current with new research relevant to dealing with today’s conflicts. Two recent examples:�One finds that people who maintain a long-range perspective of their past, present and future are better able to navigate through turmoil or setbacks and maintain greater well-being.�Another study finds that some adversity in life actually contributes to mental health and resiliency.

The upshot of all this is that you need to be an informed�consumer of therapy. To aid that, here are some useful questions to ask:

About Your Therapist:

  • Does the therapist seem to enjoy his/her work? Sound bored or depressed?
  • Does he or she convey a sense of�humor?
  • Does he or she seem to have a broad, understanding perspective about the variety of human lives?
  • What experience and knowledge does he or she have regarding the impact of work and careers on people’s lives? Be wary if the therapist indicates that such familiarity is irrelevant to treatment.

About Yourself:

  • Do you feel challenged by your therapist to look at yourself, but within a safe, respectful, non-judgmental environment?
  • Do you feel the therapist is capable of “seeing” you; your hidden truths?
  • Do you think the therapist is engaged and interested in helping you, as opposed to treating a diagnostic category?

Keep in mind that everybody has some barriers to facing and dealing with unpleasant truths about themselves. You might rationalize your own and conclude that you’re dealing with a bad therapist. Try to be open and honest with your perception. Use your�intuition, but in consort with your reason. Don’t’ hesitate to discuss these questions and your response to them with the therapist.

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“Terrorism” — A Politically Useful Label?

The distinctions we’re hearing between”terrorism” and “criminal acts” go beyond the issue of whether to try certain defendants in military or civilian courts. It appears that when it serves the Cheney/Tea Party political purposes, some acts of murder and destructiveness against Americans — attempted or consumated — are called “terrorism,” while other similar acts – such as those of Joseph Stack, who flew his plane into the IRS building in Texas, killing someone in a suicide mission; or Amy Bishop, the professor who shot and killed several colleagues when denied tenure — are labeled as simply criminal acts of individual, emotionally disturbed people.

Aside from understanding the psychology of people engaging in such acts (an important issue, itself), whether they act as individuals or part of an organized group, many in the media appear to swallow this portrayal whole – accepting and repeating the same alleged distinction. Even Homeland Security Secretay Napolitano has joined in, recently stating on NPR’s Diane Rehm show, for example, that Joseph Stack’s actions were those of a “lone wolf,” carrying out a “personal agenda.”

Of course, all this gives more cred to part of the right wing’s core agenda – convincing the public that the Obama administration is “soft” on terrorism, despite all the hard evidence to the contrary. The recent uproar over Cheney The Daughter’s portrayal of some Justice Department lawyers as part of the “al-Qaeda 7″ is another example of this strategy. Unfortunately, Napolitano, as well as some journalists and politicians, are playing right into this by trying to make a politically safe but dubious distinction between certain “terrorist acts” and “terrorism.”

An interesting distinction, perhaps, except to those who end up dead either way.

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Why Do People Volunteer?

During the holiday season, many people feel the need to volunteer their time to charity organizations. Feeding the homeless is especially popular at this time of the year, and then often forgotten – duty done. Such volunteering is often met with eye-rolling by the staff of organizations, who wish that such earnest desire to help would continue at other times of the year as well.

Its easy to be cynical about holiday volunteering. But for an increasing number of men and women, young and old, volunteering their time, service, and expertise has become an integral part of their lives; an expression of their core values. And that raises the question: Why do people volunteer?

Moreover, how does it impact your own life, as well as those whom you help? Over the years Ive explored these questions with men and women, and tried to help them discover the meaning and impact of their volunteer work upon their own lives, both personally and professionally.Ive found that volunteer work can impact peoples values, perspectives, and even their life goals. For many, it spurs new growth, spiritually and emotionally.

This makes sense. Over the years, as Ive investigated the link between career success and emotional conflict, Ive found that many highly successful, career-oriented men and women acknowledge feelings of inner emptiness, and absence of meaning in their lives. At the same time, many say that their volunteer work is the only arena that provides a sense of meaning and human connection. Far greater than their career, and – sadly – often greater than their intimate relationships.

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Are We Capable Of Tackling Future — Not Just Present — Dangers?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote that evidence from brain research shows that the human brain systematically misjudges certain kinds of risks. In effect, evolution has programmed us to be alert for snakes and enemies with clubs, but we arent well prepared to respond to dangers that require forethought.

If you come across a garter snake, nearly all of your brain will light up with activity as you process the threat. Yet if somebody tells you that carbon emissions will eventually destroy Earth as we know it, only the small part of the brain that focuses on the future a portion of the prefrontal cortex will glimmer. http://tinyurl.com/mqkq4c

In other words, we will tend to acknowledge a threat and react to it when we experience it as more immediate. But if it appears to lie in the distance somewhere, it doesnt have the same impact. In effect, our brain circuitry, from early in our evolution, makes us cavalier about future dangers, even if those dangers are horrendous in their consequences if not headed off by action that begins in the present. And even if the dangers were programmed to react to were relevant in an ancient environment, but minimally present in todays world.

Kristoff points out that all is not lost, particularly if we understand and acknowledge our neurological shortcomings and try to compensate with rational analysis. When we work at it, we are indeed capable of foresight: If we can floss today to prevent tooth decay in later years, then perhaps we can also drive less to save the planet.

I think there is even more encouraging evidence, beyond applying rational analysis. In additions and perhaps more importantly is the capacity to grow consciousness about our impact on the world, through our actions; and deliberately use our empathy which is also hard-wired, as brain research shows to initiate actions that support desired outcomes. Whether for our own lives or future generations.

For example, part of our early ancestry propels us to seek out multiple partners, because of evolutionary need to reproduce. (Of course, some of us continue to do that, repeatedly!) But acting contrary to that or any other impulse that may benefit your own self but hurt others well, thats a choice you can make, as your consciousness grows. The latter enables you to define what you value, why, and engage in actions based on conscious values that promoting and supporting life, not just your own.

The more our consciousness grows within us as a species, that, in turn, drives continued emotional, mental, and behavioral evolution. It leads to thinking about what your life impact is; or what you want it to be. Im reminded of something Samantha Power said in a college commencement address last year, Become a good ancestor

Now there’s a good principle to live by.

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