My Most-Read Blog Post

The majority of people reading my blog are going to a post dated January 24, 2010, entitled: "Experience is Not What Happens To You.  It Is What You Do With What Happens to You".   This 600 word post contains much of the core of what I believe about human psychological experience, and forms a foundation for the work that I do.

I hope you will read and consider it.


Principles for Finding the Ideal Career - Part II: The Impact of Career Choice on Children

I ended last week's post with a question about the responsibility of parents to provide the resources necessary for their children's success, particularly schooling. Having spent a significant amount of time volunteering in the public school systems of both Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, I have first-hand knowledge of the deficiencies of urban public education.  The private alternative for elementary, middle and high schools can easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, before taking into account the skyrocketing cost of college and graduate school. Even with significant financial aid, the private alternative is therefore essentially out of reach for the vast majority of families.  

Fortunately, caring, attentive parents can supply an educational environment as rich and nourishing as a private school - but only if the parents devote the time necessary for that care and attention.  However, family therapist and author David Cole cautions moderation in that regard: "By killing ourselves to provide a perfect, trauma-free childhood for our children, we're wasting our energy. The greatest gift you can give your children is to have a fulfilling marriage yourself."  Perhaps the second greatest gift is to work in a fulfilling, but not all-consuming, career.  A job that consumes so much time and energy that it interferes significantly with spouse and family time needs to be reexamined.

That is not to say that material abundance is unimportant to a child's intellectual growth: it can provide such vital educational tools as computers and travel, each of which open's children's eyes to a wider world than their own.  But research tends to suggest that once a family's income rises to between$80 K and $100K (depending on geographic location and family size) there is little gain in educational attainment at income rises.  For example, according to an article published August 27, 2009 in the New York Times, math and reading SAT scores are only 5% higher for a family earning $160K - $200K versus a family earning half of that.

I was struck recently by a dialogue in the Oscar nominated picture "Up In The Air" between George Clooney and a long-time employee (played by J.K. Simmons) whom he has just fired.  Simmons admits to having hated his job for many years, but bemoans the fact that his son will no longer be able to take pride in his father, who feels disgraced.  Clooney, who has investigated the employee's past, asks rhetorically whether the son might not respect his father more for pursuing his life-long dream to be a chef.  If you are working primarily for the benefit of your children, think again - you may not be perceiving your child's best interest as accurately as you think.  Certainly you would want your children to pursue careers from which they could derive satisfaction and accomplishment.  Take a close look at yours and make sure it fits that bill at least to some degree.





Principles for Finding the Ideal Career - Part I: Vital Engagement

Many of my clients think about choosing a career path in a bit of a vacuum, asking "what kind of work should I be doing?".  Let me suggest that, while there's value in looking at career as a distinct category (others being relationships, health, family, hobbies, religion, etc,), there may be even greater value in taking a more holistic viewpoint, thinking of career as simply the largest (in terms of time devoted to it, but not necessarily the most important) part of one's life "tapestry".  So a better question might be "what kind of work should I be doing that will allow me to maximize the overall fulfillment I feel in my life?".

Jonathan Haidt, in his must-read book "The Happiness Hypothesis", speaks to the essential importance of two elements in creating fulfillment (which he also calls "vital engagement").  To me, fulfillment, or vital engagement, is synonymous with "bliss" in the common phrase "follow your bliss".  Haidt defines vital engagement as "a relationship to the world that is characterized both by experiences of flow (enjoyed absorption) and by meaning (subjective significance).  Flow is what you feel when you are so engaged in an activity that you lose track of time; it could be anything from researching a topic of interest to shooting hoops to singing to tinkering with your car to gardening.  Subjective significance is simply that whatever you're doing matters to you (whether or not it matters to anyone else).

Let me apply the principle of vital engagement to the coaching/counseling I do.  A lot of my clients find themselves "trapped" in work they have grown tired of, and stale in, because they feel the need to earn a certain salary to maintain a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.  A critical question they need to answer is "Does the lifestyle to which you've become accustomed allow you to find enough vital engagement?" Having a beautiful home, and being able to afford certain luxuries, may have subjective significance, but if a significant amount of flow is missing from one's life, dissatisfaction sets in.  

I recommend looking at career EITHER as a means to find lots of vital engagement at work (which would be ideal) OR, barring that, as a place that will allow you at least some vital engagement while providing you with the opportunity and means to create more vital engagement in other areas of your life.  So it might well be better to take a job at a not-for-profit association, doing work of subjective significance, earning $60,000 and working a 40 hour week, as opposed to a position in a corporation which might pay twice that much but which would involve work of little subjective significance and severely reduce the time available to pursue outside interests that could provide a good deal of vital engagement.

If you are a parent and have growing children at home you may take some exception to this way of looking at career.  It may appear a bit self-centered, seemingly neglecting the importance of considering your kids' future. After all, don't you have a responsibility to give them as many opportunities as possible (which means living in a good neighborhood, and perhaps sending them to expensive schools)?  I will delve into this in my next post.


The Incredible Power of Thought

Having run a clinical trials group in the 1990s, I have long been aware of the phenomenon of the placebo effect: how ingesting a sugar pill (or an equivalent neutral substance) with absolutely no scientifically demonstrated efficacy can have a measurable impact on physical and mental health. A metanalysis was recently published in the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders, reviewing the results of numerous studies conducted over the past few years on the placebo effect.  The rather astounding conclusion of the study was that the strength of the placebo effect has DOUBLED over the past 10 years.  In other words, if for example 10% of people in the control leg of a study conducted in 1999 reported relief of symptoms by taking a placebo, 20% of people reported relief in 2009.

The recognition of the reality of the placebo effect was in and of itself challenging to traditional medical thinking.  It demonstrated conclusively that people’s thoughts impacted their physical well-being: if someone merely THOUGHT they were ingesting a therapeutic substance, there was a  certain probability that it would have beneficial effects, whether or not it contained any “proven effective” ingredients.  

An article by Olivia Judson in the May 4, 2010 New York Times notes another fascinating angle to the placebo phenomenon: "Placebo treatments are more powerful if your doctor believes in them. They are also more powerful if the doctor tells you so. In one study, for example, patients who had just come out of surgery were given a saline infusion, and — whenever they asked for it — the pain killer buprenorphine. However, some patients were told the saline infusion was a powerful painkiller, others that it might be one, while a third group wasn’t told anything. Over the course of three days, those in the “know-nothing” group asked for more buprenorphine than those in the “maybe” group, who in turn asked for more than those told they were getting a real drug."

As a former advertising executive, I have to believe that he doubling of the placebo effect’s power is directly attributable to the explosion of pharmaceutical advertising in the past decade.  We are now bombarded with messages that there are medications that can effectively treat literally hundreds of conditions, many of which the layperson was unaware until recently.  So now, when a participant in the placebo leg of a clinical trial is given a pill, it’s quite natural for that person to assume that it must be having SOME effect. 

The relevant conclusion that emerges for me: Since how you THINK you should feel dictates at least to some degree how you actually DO feel, it’s worth investing time and energy in training one’s mind to think along more positive lines, and to be more careful in filtering out the unwanted messages of the culture we’re immersed in.  For ideas on how to train your mind to think more positively, see my article "Changing Your Reality" and my blog of January, 2010: "Choosing Your Thoughts".  As for filtering the unwanted messages, pay attention to how much “news” you’re ingesting, as well as to  how many commercials you’re watching.   Unfortunately, much of the “news” is focused on the negative (messages of attack by one party against another, and messages designed to engender a level of fear so that you will turn back to the news frequently to monitor the latest developments), and many of the commercial messages being broadcast are designed to heighten anxiety so that the advertiser’s product will be purchased as the solution to the anxiety-producing problem (notice how often the words “control” appear in ads). 

Be vigilant about what kind of thoughts you allow to be aimed at you, and about what kinds of thoughts you dwell on.  These thoughts have more power than you may realize!


Daily Preventive Care for Your Relationship

The current issue of Psychotherapy Networker, the most widely read publication on marriage counseling, contains recommendations for several techniques that couples should use to "retrain" old, dysfunctional patterns of relating.  As I read through them, it was clear to me that adopting the use of some or all of these techniques (which I've slightly modified) could enhance the strength of relationships that are fundamentally healthy, as opposed to using them to repair a ruptured connection.

Technique #1: Thoughts: Set aside a few seconds several times a day to think of a positive quality about your partner: the way he laughs at your jokes, the calm she demonstrates when you get ruffled, his skill at fixing things, what a great Mom she is.  What you're thinking about your partner while separated has a huge influence on how you'll interact when you come together.  Relatedly:

Technique #2: Writing: Once a week (perhaps over the weekend) take a couple of minutes to write a couple of sentences about something that your partner did during the week that was pleasing to you. Try to include a couple of visual details to strengthen the imagery and its staying power (e.g. "he was undoing his tie when he complimented me on how well I handled his mother"; "she looked up from the computer and then told me how toned I looked").

Technique #3: Hugs:  Hug your partner tightly (pressing your pelvis and chest against him/her) at least three, but preferably six times a day, and hold the hug for a minimum of five seconds.  This close physical contact will increase the chance of raising the level of oxytocin in your system, oxyctocin being the hormone that plays the primary role in bonding.  Even if the hugs feel a bit strained and awkward at first, it's probable that you'll soon find yourself "getting into" the hugs, and feeling a closer connection with your partner. 

Technique #4: Gestures: At three major "transitional" times of the day, (e.g. before getting out of bed in the morning, before leaving the house for work, upon arriving home, right before dinner, or the last thing at night) make some brief, nonverbal acknowledgment of your partner's importance to you.  This could take the form of a touch on the hand, a gaze into the eyes, or a wink.

More globally, Dr. John Gottman ( www.gottman.com ), who has done the most extensive research on relationships ever undertaken, has found that the healthiest relationships are those in which one partner's "bids*" are met with a positive acknowledgment or response by the other partner.  Pay attention to your partner's bids, and acknowledge or, even better, respond positively whenever you can.

* Gottman defines a "bid" as the fundamental unit of emotional communication. "A bid can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch -- any single expression that says, 'I want to feel connected to you.' "  Bids exist not only between romantic partners, but between friends, relatives, and business associates.  A romantic bid might take the form of a "come hither" look; the invitation could be denied in a positive way "I wish I were horny," or in a negative way "I'm too tired for sex."  A fellow worker's suggestion to have lunch could be responded to with a positive denial ("I wish I had the time" ) or a negative one ( "Who has time for lunch with the workload at this place?").