Get Happy: Four Well-Being Workouts

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CreditCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

Relieving stress and anxiety might help you feel better — for a bit. Martin E.P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, does not see alleviating negative emotions as a path to happiness.

“Psychology is generally focused on how to relieve depression, anger and worry,” he said. “Freud and Schopenhauer said the most you can ever hope for in life is not to suffer, not to be miserable, and I think that view is empirically false, morally insidious, and a political and educational dead-end.”

“What makes life worth living,” he said, “is much more than the absence of the negative.”

To Dr. Seligman, the most effective long-term strategy for happiness is to actively cultivate well-being.

In his 2012 book, “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being,” he explored how well-being consists not merely of feeling happy (an emotion that can be fleeting) but of experiencing a sense of contentment in the knowledge that your life is flourishing and has meaning beyond your own pleasure.

To cultivate the components of well-being, which include engagement, good relationships, accomplishment and purpose, Dr. Seligman suggests these four exercises based on research at the Penn Positive Psychology Center, which he directs, and at other universities.

Identify Signature Strengths

Write down a story about a time when you were at your best. It doesn’t need to be a life-changing event but should have a clear beginning, middle and end. Reread it every day for a week, and each time ask yourself: “What personal strengths did I display when I was at my best?” Did you show a lot of creativity? Good judgment? Were you kind to other people? Loyal? Brave? Passionate? Forgiving? Honest?

Writing down your answers “puts you in touch with what you’re good at,” Dr. Seligman explained. The next step is to contemplate how to use these strengths to your advantage, intentionally organizing and structuring your life around them.

In a study by Dr. Seligman and colleagues published in American Psychologist, participants looked for an opportunity to deploy one of their signature strengths “in a new and different way” every day for one week.

“A week later, a month later, six months later, people had on average lower rates of depression and higher life satisfaction,” Dr. Seligman said. “Possible mechanisms could be more positive emotions. People like you more, relationships go better, life goes better.”

Find the Good

Set aside 10 minutes before you go to bed each night to write down three things that went really well that day. Next to each event answer the question, “Why did this good thing happen?”

Instead of focusing on life’s lows, which can increase the likelihood of depression, the exercise “turns your attention to the good things in life, so it changes what you attend to,” Dr. Seligman said. “Consciousness is like your tongue: It swirls around in the mouth looking for a cavity, and when it finds it, you focus on it. Imagine if your tongue went looking for a beautiful, healthy tooth.” Polish it.

Make a Gratitude Visit

Think of someone who has been especially kind to you but you have not properly thanked. Write a letter describing what he or she did and how it affected your life, and how you often remember the effort. Then arrange a meeting and read the letter aloud, in person.

“It’s common that when people do the gratitude visit both people weep out of joy,” Dr. Seligman said. Why is the experience so powerful? “It puts you in better touch with other people, with your place in the world.”

Respond Constructively

This exercise was inspired by the work of Shelly Gable, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has extensively studied marriages and other close relationships. The next time someone you care about shares good news, give what Dr. Gable calls an “active constructive response.”

That is, instead of saying something passive like, “Oh, that’s nice” or being dismissive, express genuine excitement. Prolong the discussion by, say, encouraging them to tell others or suggest a celebratory activity.

“Love goes better, commitment increases, and from the literature, even sex gets better after that.”

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Your Face Scares Me: Understanding the Hyperrational Adolescent Brain

Take off your snarky hat. Adolescents get a bad rap, says Dr. Daniel Siegel, and he should know. He’s a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Executive Director of the American Psychiatric Association, and author of many books, videos, and articles on the mind. Despite his endless awards and titles, Siegel displays in lectures the warm avuncularity of James Taylor in an off-the-rack suit as he urges parents and educators to stop viewing adolescence as a grim and crazed space that kids need to cross through quickly. Why? Because teens will perceive these attitudes and act accordingly.

Siegel’s recent and sobering book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, relies on recent neurobiology research to explain how the mind works during adolescence, the ages between 12 and 24. It’s not just adding five years onto a ten-year-old’s brain, he says. Teenagers get a whole new brain. More to the point, his book sensibly frames how adolescents’ brain developments and concomitant personality traits serve a grand purpose — preparation to leave the nest.

According to Siegel, there are several unique features of the adolescent mind that deserve the awareness of teachers who “alloparent” (perform parenting duties without technically being a guardian).

Wait 90 Seconds

Fact:

The brain’s emotional system is more active during adolescence than at any other stage of life. So what? Shown a photo of a neutral face, an adult’s reasoning prefrontal cortex is activated, whereas the same photo lights up the emotional amygdala of the teen brain. Consequently adolescents may feel complete conviction that a neutral face is hostile or that an innocent remark is aggressive. It’s the lower limbic system getting braced to face the outside world.

Application:

When a teen over-reacts and blows attitude your way, try not to take it personally. Matching a student’s fire with our own — “Jeremy! Take that attitude outside!” — can escalate the threat level, thereby triggering the adolescent’s “fight, flee, freeze, or faint” response. Instead, wait 90 seconds — the amount of time it takes for spiky emotions to subside. Then say, “I felt some heat back there. Can you name what you were feeling?” Brain studies show that naming emotions activates the prefrontal cortex and calms emotions. So name it to tame it.

I’m So Bored . . . That’s Fantastic!

Fact:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Baseline levels of dopamine are lowest during adolescence, but its ecstasy-triggering release in response to “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and novelty, giggling, texting, chocolate cake, rugby, and risk, is higher than at any other stage of human development. If adolescents didn’t experience such grinding boredom living in mom’s Tribeca brownstone, they’d never leave to major in ecogastronomy, be all they can be, climb Mt. Rainier, and ride a bus for two days to see Deadmau5.

Unfortunately, increased reward drive can lead to what is often incorrectly categorized as impulsivity. A better term would be “hyperrationality,” or examining the facts of a situation and placing more “weight on the calculated benefits of an action than on the potential risks of that action.”

This played out for me in the 1980s when my parents took a trip, leaving me home for the summer. My teen brain decided that eating nothing more than three cups of Rice Krispies with skim milk each day would be a good way to lose weight. I realized this was not a healthy choice, but the benefits and originality of my solution for quickly shedding pounds overrode the headaches, mouth lesions, and two contiguous bouts of strep throat that followed. When my parents returned home, they found me woozy with hunger, and ordered me to eat a PB&J sandwich. I protested for an hour because, duh, my plan was working — and then finally relented.

Application:

Saying “no” does not counter hyperrationality. Scare tactics, admonishments, and medical information didn’t curb teen smoking, says Siegel. “The strategy that worked was to inform them about how the adults who owned the cigarette companies were brainwashing them so they could get their money.” Instead of negatively directing adolescents to abandon their risky plans, Siegel says, respect their goals, and then suggest alternative boundary-pushing actions. Example: “Todd, wanting to modify your appearance is natural, but how about swimming for an hour every day this summer? Most of your friends would find it too challenging, but they’d be impressed by how you accomplished your goal and grew muscle.”

Siegel also recommends having adolescents put their hands on their chest and their stomach to become aware of the neural networks surrounding intestines (“gut feeling”) and the heart (“heartfelt feelings”), and counter hyperrationality with intuition. Ask, “What does your heart and gut tell you about that plan?”

The Holy Grail of Brain Development

Neural integration, linking areas of the brain so that more sophisticated functions emerge, writes Siegel, is the most important concept in brain development. But 98 percent of schools don’t use one of the most effective strategies for achieving this integration, as well as recalibrating adolescents’ emotional reactivity and countering hyperrationality. Through mental trainingfor 12 minutes a day, adolescents can stimulate the growth of myelin sheaths that make their neural networks more efficient. Mental training can also lead to feeling more engaged, receptive, resourceful, and adaptive — ideal traits for learning how to develop resilience and efficacy.

What unique features of teenage brain activity have you experienced at your school?

When Black Hair Violates The Dress Code

 

dress code.

Mai Ly Degnan for NPR

Raising teenage girls can be a tough job. Raising black teenage girls as white parents can be even tougher. Aaron and Colleen Cook knew that when they adopted their twin daughters, Mya and Deanna.

As spring came around this year, the girls, who just turned 16, told their parents they wanted to get braided hair extensions. Their parents happily obliged, wanting Mya and Deanna to feel closer to their black heritage.

But when the girls got to school, they were asked to step out of class. Both were given several infractions for violating the dress code. Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, north of Boston, bans hair extensions in its dress code, deeming them “distracting.”

When administrators asked the girls to remove their braids, Mya and Deanna refused.

The next day, Colleen and Aaron Cook came to the school where, they say, they were told the girls’ hair needed to be “fixed.” The Cooks refused, telling administrators that there was nothing wrong with the hairstyle.

Enlarge this image

Mya and Deanna Cook, 16, with their parents, Aaron and Colleen Cook.

Courtesy of the Cook family.

As punishment, the girls were removed from their extracurricular activities, barred from prom, and threatened with suspension if they did not change their hair.

According to Colleen Cook, administrators at Mystic Valley have routinely reprimanded black students for dress code violations involving hair.

Other black girls have been pulled out of class, she says, lined up, asked if they had hair extensions and given detention if they did.

Colleen remembers when one student, who wore her hair in its natural texture, was taken out of class and told that she would need to relax, or chemically straighten, her hair before returning to school the next day.

In defense of their daughters, the Cooks brought in a yearbook to show school leaders the many white female students with hair extensions and dyed hair.

But, the Cooks say, the administration didn’t see that those students were in violation of the dress code, stating those hair alterations weren’t as obvious.

NPR reached out to Mystic Valley Regional for an interview several times without a response.

The Cooks contacted the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, and the ACLU to file a complaint against the school, calling the dress code discriminatory to students of color, particularly black females.

After much pressure, the school suspended enforcement of the dress code until the end of the year.

Noticing a trend

In recent years, black girls have been sent home for wearing dreadshead wraps and even wearing their hair naturally.

In schools across the country, black student suspension rates are higher than their peers’. In charter schools, kindergarten through eighth grade, those rates are even higher.

In fact, Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, found that, at the highest suspending charter schools in the nation, the majority of students were black.

Though databases for infractions vary from state-to-state, in a recent analysis, half of suspensions in charter schools were for minor nonviolent offenses, including dress code violations.

Specifically, Losen’s research shows that in Massachusetts, the Cook’s home state, black students at charters lose 24 more days of instruction, due to suspension, than white students.

“Having a dress code is one thing, but denying an education for it defies logic,” says Losen.

Zero-tolerance leads to high suspension rates

Dorinda J. Carter Andrews, assistant dean of equity outreach initiatives at Michigan State University, says that black females are more likely to receive harsher discipline than their white and Latina counterparts.

Her research on zero-tolerance policies and their outcomes show that they enforce a marginalization of black girls in schools. Which can, in practice, criminalize their black identity.

“What does a headdress have to do with learning and success?” asks Carter Andrews.

She finds it strange that hair would even be part of a dress code. It’s not a choice, but an aspect of one’s body. Which raises a question: Is a zero-tolerance policy on hair — where students can be suspended without warning — less about a dress code and more about a racial code?

In her research, Carter Andrews has found that this type of policing has a detrimental effect on black girls in schools and how their peers view them, further enforcing negative stereotypes.

Black girls are often seen as being loud or aggressive, and are overly disciplined because of that stigma. Andrews finds that leads to low self-esteem and under-performance in school for these students.

Jamilia Blake, who looks at the “adultification” of black girls in schools, believes stereotypes of black adults are put on black children in schools, and black girls in particular.

Blake sees strict dress codes as a way of targeting certain students without using racial language. By using certain restrictions on hair styles and dress, school officials are enforcing the policing of black youth.

Toward the end of the school year, the Cook twins, Mya and Deanna, were allowed to participate in their extracurricular activities. That was after much upset from friends and supporters and a word of warning from the Massachusetts attorney general to school leaders at Mystic Valley Regional Charter.

Meanwhile, the Cooks continue to advocate for their daughters as the dress code fight goes on. The school hasn’t made any plans, publicly, to change the regulations around hair.

Colleen Cook wants people to know that they’re fighting not just for their daughters, but for the other black girls in the school who have felt victimized.

Mystic Valley has put out a statement in defense of its dress code policy, stating that the restrictions on hair extensions exist so that the school can promote equity. Hair extensions — it reads — can be expensive.

The Cooks believe this experience has helped them realize the world their daughters have to face.

“When our daughters walk with us, they have our white privilege. When they’re not with us, they’re black children,” says Aaron Cook.

Colleen agrees, adding, “I feel like the school is pushing us to raise them as white children, but that’s not who they are or who they’re going to be.”

The Cooks value their children’s black heritage and want them to be proud of themselves at home and at school. They’ll continue to fight to make that happen.

How to Be Mindful While Reading

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CreditSam Kalda

“Reading is so much a part of our everyday lives that we take it for granted – text messages, the banners that run across our televisions, the ads that pop up. And yet, reading can be a crucial opportunity for mindfulness — the ability to be in the present moment, aware while withholding judgment, both inside and outside of yourself. This summer, take a break from passive reading, skimming, reading-as-multitasking, and try mindful reading.” — Marcella Frydman Manoharan, co-founder of Cambridge Coaching, which specializes in academic coaching and mentoring.

Find a window of time when you can focus on your reading, rather than trying to squeeze it into a busy day or get a few pages in before bedtime.

Pick reading that will engage but not deplete you, something that requires a bit of mental energy, but doesn’t end up as another item on your growing to-do list. There’s a whole world of text out there to discover: novels, biographies, histories, but also collections of essays, science writing, poems and long-form journalism.

Consider reading in print. If much of your reading is on a screen – your phone, computer or tablet — then mindful reading from a tangible book could be a nice break from the pinging.

As you turn the pages, notice the quality of light, the color and even the smell of the ink on the page, the way that the spine of your book feels against the palms of your hands. You may find yourself more easily bored or sleepy. Take note: This is you slowing down – the point of this exercise to begin with.

Pay attention to language. Look at an individual word; look up unfamiliar words. Maybe you use a pencil to underline language that you notice, or maybe you just make a mental note. Either way, get into the details — the rhythm of a sentence, a detail that conjures a person or place. Notice as reading causes your thoughts to meander. Reading does not have to be a comprehensive or linear exercise. Your mind is not a vacuum sweeping up each word mechanically. You will invariably drift off, think of something else, imagine what you’re getting for lunch, or what you should have said to your date last night — all of this is expected.

When your mind wanders, gently usher yourself back to the text and keep going. If you’ve forgotten the last passage you read, you can always go back and read it again. Or don’t. There’s value in a bit of uncertainty, in finding peace within ambiguity.

Finally, don’t over-prepare for your reading. You don’t really need the perfect lounge chair, with light at just the right slant and a cup of tea precisely brewed. Mindful reading can provide an oasis even in more turbulent settings.