Pursuing Your Passion: It’s Anything But Selfish

For the past few years, I’ve taught an undergraduate seminar on the psychology of passion. About 2/3 of the class is devoted to studying scientific research, and the other 1/3 is spent discussing how students can identify what they are passionate about and then pursue those passions in thoughtful and meaningful ways.

Getting students to understand and “buy into” the research is pretty easy. The harder part is getting them to consider the possibility of actually doing what they love (rather than what others want them to do). Quite often, when they start thinking about pursuing activities they’re passionate about, they come up with all kinds of excuses:

“It would be too hard.”

“I’m not good enough to do that.”

“I wouldn’t be able to make any money.”

“My mom and dad would be disappointed in me.”

“It’s too risky.”

Essentially, most of their excuses are rooted in fear.

This is something I certainly understand. When I was younger, I loved to play music but was afraid to give it a try for fear of not being successful and of disappointing others.

Unfortunately, the excuses don’t wither away with age. Instead, they hang around and provide the same “fearful” reasons for why we shouldn’t do the things we truly love and value—the things we are most passionate about.

Resistance and The Lizard Brain

In this best-selling book, The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield refers to these excuses as “Resistance”—that little voice in the back of our head that tells us it’s too difficult, that it’s silly, that we’d never be successful doing that. Resistance is what ultimately keeps us from forging ahead and doing the things we know we should be doing in order to experience the fulfillment (and success) we ultimately crave. Some examples of Resistance might include:

Checking Facebook instead of studying.

Answering meaningless emails instead of writing that book you want to write.

Identifying “good” reasons for staying in a safe but unfulfilling job instead of venturing out and starting your own business.

Practicing guitar in your house instead of getting out and playing music with other people (as I’m prone to do).

Coming up with excuses for not approaching that attractive person in your biology class.

Sabotaging a big, risky project just as you’re nearing its completion.

I’m sure you can think of other excuses that nicely fit the mold.

Best-selling author Seth Godin has suggested that Resistance comes from our “lizard brain,” the oldest part of our brain (evolutionarily speaking) that is responsible for anger, stress, fear, anxiety, and the like. According to Godin, the lizard brain doesn’t care about what’s rational. It only cares about protecting you.

This idea coincides nicely with some well-established psychological theories that posit the existence of two different modes of thinking: one, much like the lizard brain, that is faster and more “automatic” in nature; the other that is slower and tends to “think things through” (for a recent discussion of this idea, see Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow).

For the most part, the excuses my students give for not pursuing their passions nicely align with this idea of the lizard brain keeping us “safe.”

But I Don’t Want to Be Selfish

But there’s one other excuse that pops up from time to time—one that seems to be less rooted in fear and more rooted in reason. It goes something like this:

“I don’t want to pursue my passion because it’s a selfish thing to do.”

I understand why my students make this argument. People often believe that doing something you’re passionate about means working 100-hour weeks, skipping meals because you can’t pull yourself away from what you’re doing, and ignoring family and friends for days on end because your “passion” has taken over.

They envision Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, who had a reputation for being incredibly passionate about his work but who was also notorious for being selfish, mean spirited, and egomaniacal. (If you’re interested in reading more about Jobs, check out Walter Isaacson’s fascinating book, Steve Jobs.)

It’s understandable, then, why some people might shun the idea of pursuing their passion. They don’t want to come across as being self-centered and uncaring.

But what I would like to argue is that pursuing something you’re passionate about can be a much more selfless act, one that actually allows you to give your very best to others.

Passion, Harmonious and Obsessive

Before we take a minute to discuss this idea, though, let’s briefly revisit what passion entails. As Vallerand and colleagues first proposed, to be passionate about something, you need to (a) spend time on it, (b) think it’s important, and (c) love it. If any of these components is missing, you are not passionate about that activity.

There are also two different types of passion.

* Obsessive Passion

The first is obsessive passion. This is a “bad” type of passion where you feel controlled by an activity. Because the activity controls you, you feel as if you have to do it (rather than wanting to do it). Consequently, you have a hard time pulling yourself away, even when you should be doing something else. This feeling of being controlled results in psychological conflict and decreased well-being. Moreover, the inability to pull yourself away from an activity tends to, somewhat paradoxically, inhibit your performance (probably because you experience conflict and distraction while doing it). And, almost by definition, it creates a life that’s out of balance.

Clearly, obsessive passion is the type of passion people are thinking of when they envision the highly passionate person whose drive to succeed trumps anything else in his life.

And this is why my students are concerned about being selfish.

But there’s a second type of passion that is much more desirable in nature and thus has the potential to produce significantly better outcomes.

*Harmonious Passion

Harmonious passion is a “good” type of passion where you feel in control of an activity. Because you control the activity (and not the other way around), you are able to do it when you want to. But you can also step away when necessary. This feeling of being in control produces a number of positive outcomes (which I will discuss shortly).

Harmonious Passion—The Road Away From Selfish Passion

Rather than being a completely selfish endeavor, I propose that if a person is harmoniously passionate about an activity, it has the far-reaching ability to positively affect others.

Let’s take a look at three reasons why.

1. Harmonious passion produces positive emotions.

In an early study, Vallerand and colleagues found that people high in harmonious passion were more likely to experience positive emotions both during and after engaging in their passionate activity. Likewise, Philippe and colleagues found that people who were harmoniously passionate about an activity were more likely to experience increases in life satisfaction over a 1-year period than people who were either obsessively passionate or non-passionate. Finally, Vallerand and Houlfort found that passion for work not only affected happiness during one’s career but also in retirement. Specifically, people who were harmoniously passionate about their work experienced the highest levels of psychological adjustment during retirement, whereas people who were obsessively passionate experienced the lowest levels—levels that were even lower than non-passionate people!

2. Harmonious passion improves performance.

In my lab, we’ve collected data showing that students who are harmoniously passionate about their academic activities have significantly higher cumulative GPAs than students who are either obsessively passionate or non-passionate. Similarly, Vallerand and colleagues found that students with high levels of obsessive passion for studying were more likely to pursue performance-avoidance goals (which means their biggest goal was not to do well, but only to make sure they didn’t do as poorly as others), which ultimately reduced their performance in class. The same seems to be true in both sports and work settings.

3. Harmonious passionate is defined by balance.

A person who is harmoniously passionate about an activity has the ability to step away from his or her passion when the time requires it. This is likely one reason why people who are harmoniously passionate about their work report greater work-family balance, whereas those who are obsessively passionate report more work-family conflict.

Being the Best Version of Yourself

Ultimately, being harmoniously passionate about an activity produces numerous positive benefits: It improves your psychological well-being, it improves your performance, and it allows you to have better balance in your life. (There are other positive outcomes as well. Interested readers can check out this review.)

In short, being harmoniously passionate helps you to be the best possible version of yourself—which improves your ability to positively impact others.

In contrast, when you are obsessively passionate or non-passionate about something, it negatively affects you—which inhibits your ability to give your best to others.

I know this has been the case in my life. When I was going through a period a few years ago during which I was obsessively passionate (or maybe even non-passionate) about my work, I know I wasn’t my best possible self. I also know that my negative mood impacted others—my students, my colleagues, my friends, and especially my family.

And here’s a hard truth that still bothers me to this day: They didn’t deserve that. My students didn’t deserve to be yelled at (which they were). My colleagues and friends didn’t deserve to hear my constant complaining (which they did). And my wife and kids certainly didn’t deserve to see me mad and anxious and stressed out.

When it comes right down to it, not giving them my best means I wasn’t considering them as I should have.

And isn’t this, at least partially, what it means to be selfish?

Ultimately, I agree with Parker Palmer, who stated, “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.”

By pursing things you are (harmoniously) passionate about, you are not being completely selfish. Rather, by doing so, you have the opportunity to be your very best, to reach your highest levels of performance. And when you do that, I believe you are in a better position to give your very best to others: to your co-workers, to your friends, to your family, and to anyone else you happen to encounter.

In essence, you have the ability to give more of yourself, to be more selfless to those you care most about.

And when it comes right down to it, isn’t that what they ultimately deserve?


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Your Own Life Story: Who’s Writing the Next Chapter?

It’s summertime, and one thing I like to do during the dog days of summer is catch up on my reading. At any given time, I’m working through multiple books, magazines, blog posts, and whatever else happens to catch my attention. In fact, here’s a snapshot of the nightstand next to my bed:


If you look closely, you’ll see numerous items devoted to personal development, an area I’ve been studying a lot recently (and which also happens to be a focus of this blog).

There’s Do Over by Jon Acuff, Bold by Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler, and The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. You’ll also see a book on speed reading (something I’m learning to do, in hopes of getting through my stack a little quicker) and Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn (a great book on mindfulness). There are also issues of Success magazine; the one on top has New York Times best-selling author and social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk on the cover.

When I read these (and other) books—whether they’re books on personal development or health and fitness or a fictional novel of some type—I almost always look for nuggets of wisdom that I can use to produce positive effects in my life. (Remember, the driving thesis of this blog is that your Life is largely the effect, or outcome, of things you’re currently experiencing—in other words, the causes. If you can change the causes, you can change the effect.)

I also do a few other things as I work my way through a book.

For example, I always look at the book jacket to learn a little more about the author(s) who wrote it. Inevitably, I find out something interesting that helps me better understand where the author was coming from when he or she wrote the book.

When I’m reading, I also sometimes wonder how many drafts the author went through while creating the book. I know that when I write, I usually go through many drafts: I write and rewrite and then write some more before I’m usually satisfied with the final product. My guess is that most writers go through a similar process. (Students, take note: Good writing is not something you usually do in one draft the night before a paper is due.)

As I’m reading, I also find myself thinking ahead to see if I can guess what’s coming next. Sometimes, I figure out the plot ahead of time; other times, I’m way off. I also wonder if the author had any alternate endings in mind as he or she worked on the book. Why did one ending make the cut while the other(s) did not?

In fact, I must not be the only person who has some interest in alternate endings. More and more DVDs, for example, are coming packaged with bonus material, including alternate endings, that the writers considered before deciding on the one that made the final cut. (For instance, here’s the alternate ending for the classic sci-fi movie, Terminator 2: Judgment Day).

We Are All Authors

Anyway, as I was skimming through a new book yesterday, I started thinking about the idea of writing a book and how it pertains to each of us.

Ultimately, the analogy that came to me is this: In essence, we are all authors.

Every one of us is writing a story that could be titled “My Life.” Day in and day out, we put “pen to paper” (or fingers to keyboard) and add more words to the story. A few words here, a few words there. And over time, we create a lengthy novel that details what we did during our time on Earth. The cool part is that every one of these novels, every one of these stories, is completely unique. No one writes the same story, because no one—not a single one of us—has the same experiences.

Your novel is totally original, which means that it’s also totally interesting. I mean, if no other person in the history of the world has had the same experiences you’ve had, how could it not be interesting?!

As I thought more about this analogy of “being the authors of our own life stories,” I realized that there is at least one important similarity and one important difference between what a “real” author goes through when writing a book and what we go through while writing our personal life stories.

The Similarity

Just like writing a “real” book, the content that goes into our story can be influenced by others. For example, when I conduct a study and then try to get it published in a professional journal, I have to go through a peer review process. During this process, other researchers review my paper and make suggestions for how I could improve it. Sometimes, the final published paper ends up being quite a bit different from the one I originally wrote. At times, this is a good thing.

But sometimes the material I end up including in the published version of the paper doesn’t make me real happy. I remember one time, for example, when I argued back and forth with a journal editor, who kept saying to me, “Just make the requested changes so you can get it published.” Ultimately, I gave in. But to this day, I’m not happy with what I ended up including in that paper.

(Having to go through peer review, where others tell me what to write, is one reason I’ve really come to enjoy blogging. In the words of Jeff Goins, author of The Art of Work: “Screw this. I don’t want to ask for somebody else’s permission to share my words with the world.”)

The more I talk to my students and others, the more I realize that we all go through a similar process when we’re writing our life stories. And just like I did when I was writing that paper, I think we much too often let others tell us what they want us to write rather than what we actually want to write.

For example, a couple years ago, I had a conversation with a student of mine that went something like this:

Her: “I’ve decided that I want to go to graduate school.”

Me: “Great! What do you want to study?”

Her: “I think I want to go into counseling.”

Me: “Great! Why counseling?”

Her: “Well . . . I don’t really like counseling that much, and, actually, I don’t want to go to graduate school either. In fact, I don’t even like college. But my parents want me to go, so I guess I’ll just suck it up and do it.”

Eventually, I lost contact with this student, so I have no idea whether she actually went back to graduate school. But nevertheless, it was very clear that she was letting someone else write important parts of her life story.

At times during my professional career, I’ve felt the same way. I’ve taken on projects or served in roles that didn’t really interest me. I did this not because it’s what I personally wanted to do, but rather because it’s what someone else wanted or expected me to do.

As I’ve written before, I understand why it’s so easy to do this. Doing what your parents (or spouses or friends or professors) want you to do, for instance, is an easy way to say, “Thanks for all your support.” Similarly, sometimes it’s simply easier to let someone else make a decision when we have a tough choice to make. Why else would we ask a server to help us decide between the fish and the pasta? The same might also be true when we have to decide between staying at a job we hate, which might provide a sense of security, and pursuing that thing we love, which may be somewhat risky. It’s stressful to make such decisions, so why not let someone else make them for you? (Plus, that way, if something doesn’t go right, we can blame it on someone else.)

But when we let others make important decisions for us, it also means that they are writing our life stories. And that means we may end up with a novel that we don’t actually enjoy reading, that we’re not proud of.

The Difference

Which takes me to an important way in which writing a “real” book and writing our personal life stories are different:

“Real” authors (prior to publication) have the opportunity to go back and rewrite chapters they’re not happy with. In fact, they can even ditch an entire story and start again from scratch if they want. I can, for instance, go through as many drafts as I want before I submit a paper for publication. Granted, I may not like every bit of material that ends up in the final version (I can be a little too perfectionistic at times), but at the very least, it’s probably better than the first draft I wrote.

In contrast, when penning our own life stories, we don’t have the opportunity to write and rewrite, edit and revise, scrap what we’ve written and start over from scratch.

Every day, by virtue of going through our daily routines, we’re adding material to our stories. And the material we add can’t be edited.

Because you only have one life story.

Which means there’s only one chance to write it.

No edits. No revisions.

Time to Take Over Authorship

Now, on the one hand, the thought that we only have one life story might depress some of you. Maybe you’re not happy with what’s been written so far. Maybe, for instance, you’ve sat passively by and let others—parents, professors, friends, significant others, society in general—tell you what you need to write.

Maybe you feel as if your life, so far, hasn’t been the real “page turner” you want it to be.

But here’s the thing you absolutely have to remember:

YOU are the author of your own life story, and that means you have the ability to decide what words are going to come next, regardless of what’s been written so far.

(And, in fact, as Joe Rogan says in this NSFW video, some of the very best stories are those where people have screwed up their lives but then find ways to change things for the better.)

You have the opportunity to make the next chapter—and the chapter after that, and the chapter after that, and the chapter after that—amazing.

You can decide that you are going to write the rest of your life story. Or, conversely, you can continue to sit idly by and let others decide what’s going to happen in your upcoming chapters.

Regardless of what you do, the next chapters will be written. There’s no doubt about that.

So I guess the question you have to ask yourself is: Who do you want to write the rest of your story?

Do you want someone else to write it for you?

Or do you want to be the author of your own life story?


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The Importance of Behaving “As If”

One hurdle people often face when trying to make important changes in their lives—whether they’re trying to pursue their passion, become better students, lose weight, start a business, or find that special someone—is their own (often limiting) beliefs about what they are capable of doing.

For example, I had a student a few years ago who said that she enjoyed writing and really wanted to spend some time working on her blog. When I asked her why she didn’t, she said, “Well, I’m not really a writer.”

I hear similar comments from students who take my undergraduate course on the psychology of passion. I remember one telling me how he really wished he could give stand-up comedy a try. Unfortunately, he followed each “wish” by saying, “But I really don’t think I can.”

And I had a similar experience recently when I started thinking about joining a band. It took me awhile to start working toward this goal because I would consistently tell myself, “I’m not good enough yet.”

In each of these situations, there was the impression that emotions or beliefs had to change before each of us could take action toward our goals.

Before my student could blog, she had to believe she was a writer.

Before my student could try stand-up comedy, he had to believe he could do it.

Before I could join a band, I had to believe I was a good enough guitar player, and I had to feel good about myself.

This notion is entrenched in our society. We tend to think that changing our minds must occur before we can change our actions. In fact, one of my all-time favorite bands, Sister Hazel, has a song called “Change Your Mind” about this very idea. The lyrics of the song state:

If you wanna be somebody else
If you’re tired of fighting battles with yourself
If you wanna be somebody else
Change your mind

Although this idea—that changes in our beliefs and emotions necessarily precede changes in our behavior—is everywhere, the fact of the matter is that it’s not always true.

In fact, a large amount of psychological research has shown that our emotions and beliefs often change after we behave a certain way, not before.

Let’s take a look at this important idea.

Behavior First, Then Emotions and Feelings

* The James-Lange Theory

Back in the late 1800s, a psychologist named William James was one of the first to propose that changes in our behavior actually precede changes in our emotions. (Carl Lange, a Danish physician also proposed this idea independently of James, and, thus, this theory came to be known as the James-Lange theory of emotion.) James’s idea was completely contrary to what most people believe about emotion. As noted above, we tend to believe that emotions cause behavior. For example:

We cry because we are sad.

We yell at others because we are mad.

We jump for joy because we are happy.

James, however, proposed that this notion is backward. Rather, James suggested that we feel a certain way because of our behavior:

We feel sad because we are crying.

We feel mad because we just yelled at someone.

We feel happy because we jumped up and down.

Since the introduction of the James-Lange theory over a century ago, much research has validated this idea.

In one classic study, for instance, Strack, Martin, and Stepper manipulated college students’ facial expressions and then measured how it affected their emotions. Specifically, they had three groups of randomly assigned students view cartoons and then rate how funny the cartoons were. One group viewed the cartoons while holding a pencil in their teeth (left picture below); a second group viewed the cartoons while holding a pencil in their lips (right picture below); and a third group simply held a pencil in their hand (which served as a control to see what would happen when facial expressions were not manipulated at all).

Pencil emotion
Picture by Daniel Comp at www.intelligentnetware.com

Note how holding a pencil in the teeth mimics the behavior of smiling whereas holding the pencil with the lips produces the behavior of frowning. Strack and colleagues believed that inducing smiling or frowning would produce different emotional responses (happy vs. sad), which would then show themselves in how funny the students rated the cartoons.

In fact, Strack and colleagues found confirmation for their hypothesis: Students who smiled rated the cartoons as significantly funnier than students who frowned. These findings supported the idea that changes in behavior often precede changes in emotion.

* Cognitive Dissonance

Further evidence for the “behavior-first” idea comes from a well-known psychological theory called cognitive dissonance. Developed by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, this theory suggests that people are likely to experience psychological discomfort (“dissonance”) when they have beliefs and behaviors that are inconsistent with one another. For example, someone who smokes but who also claims that smoking is bad is likely to experience cognitive dissonance. The same is true for a student who never cracks a book but who claims that studying is important.

Once a person experiences such dissonance, he will attempt to reduce this discomfort by either changing his behavior to match the belief or—more importantly, for the sake of the current argument—changing his belief to match the behavior. Thus, a person who smokes, but who also claims that smoking is bad for you, will experience dissonance and may ultimately come to believe that “smoking really isn’t that bad for me.” Similarly, a student who never studies, but who claims that studying is important, may eventually come to adopt the belief that “studying really isn’t that important” or that “studying probably won’t help me anyway.” Ultimately, the only way to reduce the dissonance is for the belief to change to match the behavior.

Since Festinger introduced this idea in the 1950s, cognitive dissonance has been one of the most studied (and most confirmed) theories in all of psychology.

(Because space permits, I won’t review any cognitive dissonance studies, but interested readers should check out a recent popular-press book that discussed the importance of cognitive dissonance theory: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.)

Again, this research confirms that idea that changes in our beliefs often follow, rather than precede, changes in our behavior.

* Power Poses

Finally, research has shown that behaving in particular ways can actually affect people at the hormonal level.

In a recent study, Carney, Cuddy, and Yap had subjects engage in “high-power” or “low-power” poses (see below) for a couple of minutes. They then measured changes in the subjects’ testosterone (a “dominance” hormone) and cortisol (a “stress” hormone) levels.

Images from www.bodylanguageproject.com
Images from www.bodylanguageproject.com

low power poses

Carney and colleagues found that high-power poses led to significant increases in testosterone and significant decreases in cortisol; in contrast, low-power poses had the opposite effect. Moreover, high-power poses increased feelings of power.

(For a great video on this research, check out Amy Cuddy’s TED talk, which has become the second most popular TED talk of all time.)

Once again, what people do changes them in important ways.

Behaving “As If”

The guiding point in all of this research is that changes in behavior frequently precede changes in our emotions and our beliefs.

In other words: Behavior first, feelings and beliefs second.

This has very important implications for the way we think about making big changes in our lives.

Ultimately, what it says is this: Producing changes in our lives is less dependent on how we feel or think and more dependent on what we actually do.

We need to worry less about changing our minds and more about changing our actions.

So, what can we do then to get the ball rolling?

In short, we can start acting “as if.”

If my student wants to be a writer, she simply needs to act “as if” she’s already a writer: She needs to sit down and put words on paper!

If my student wants to try stand-up comedy, he needs to act “as if” he’s already a comic: Go to an open-mic night and tell some jokes!

If I want to play in a band and become a better guitar player, I need to act “as if” I’m already in those roles: I need to get together with other musicians and play!

If a person wants to become a better student, she should act “as if” she’s already a good student and do the things that good students do: go to class, take good notes, study early, and so on.

If a person wants to become more confident, he needs to act “as if” he’s already confident and do the things that confident people do.

Just Do It!

Ultimately, if we want to start accomplishing our goals—even if we don’t believe we can—we need to take steps in the right direction. And importantly, we don’t need to take huge steps to get the ball rolling. Rather, we just need to start—we just need to take step.

Because, let’s face it, if we don’t take our first step, we can’t take our second, third, and fourth steps. And if we don’t take any steps, we can be assured of one thing: not reaching our goals. So let’s start acting “as if.”

Importantly, when we act “as if” in pursuit of our goals, two things will likely happen. First, we’ll find ourselves doing the things necessary to reach our goals, and we’ll likely start to reap some of the rewards that will motivate us to keep going.

Second, if we start to start to act “as if,” psychological research says that we’ll start to feel and believe in ways that will support our actions. When this happens, our behavior, emotions, and thoughts will be in alignment, which will spur us even further.

Yes, what we feel and how we think are important. But doing is what ultimately gets us to where we want to be.

As Amelia Earhart noted: “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”


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Building Relationships: Catch ‘Em Doing Something Good

The other day, I was in a store grabbing a few items. I was behind a mom and her two kids (probably about ages 6 and 8) and happened to catch a bit of their conversation as they moved around the store. (I wasn’t stalking them or anything; they just seemed to be going everywhere I was.)

What I noticed real quickly was the mom’s tendency to snap at her kids for every little thing they did wrong. She snapped at them when they got too far away from her. She snapped at them when they were walking too closely to her. She snapped at them when they stopped to look at something.

But the number of times the kids did these things was minimal, and from my perspective, they were very well-behaved. In fact, if I had to estimate, I’d say they were being “good” 90% of the time.

And yet, the mom never once praised them for listening. Never once did she “catch ’em doing something good.” Rather, she simply yelled at them whenever they did something she deemed unacceptable. And as their visit wore on, I could see the kids getting visibly upset with their mom.

As I thought about this episode later in the day, I shook my head and questioned her parenting skills. How could she be so short with them, especially when they weren’t really doing anything wrong? But then I realized something.

I do this, too—and probably a lot more than I should.

For example:

As a parent, I frequently bark at my kids if they’re doing something I view as unacceptable (but much of which is completely normal behavior for any regular 4- or 6-year-old boy).

As a husband, I shoot my wife “the look” (as she calls it) if she does something I don’t agree with. (I also fail to thank her as much as I should when she does something particularly helpful around the house, which is pretty much all the time.)

As a teacher, I am much more likely to check questions “wrong” (with my big, red pen) than I am to tell my students what they did well on their papers or exams.

As a pet owner, I “shoo” my dog away if she’s excessively licking my hand, or I yell at her if she’s barking.

There are numerous other examples.

But you know what? It’s not just the woman in the store, and it’s not just me. Instead, I think—no, I know—that we all do this:

Parents yell at their kids or, when this isn’t appropriate, give them a menacing look (which says, “Oooh, you’re gonna get it later!”).

Coaches yell at their players.

Roommates get mad at each other when they haven’t done the dishes or cleaned the bathroom sink.

Students very visibly roll their eyes when other students ask “silly” questions in class.

Politicians shoot down their colleagues’ “stupid” ideas for no other reason than they’re on the “other” team.

Random strangers yell at other random strangers.

If you think about it, this practice is everywhere: We note when people are doing things we don’t like, and we try to stop them. Much less frequently, though, do we catch ’em doing something good.

In “psychology speak,” we frequently punish the bad behavior and much less frequently reinforce the good behavior. And as I hope to show shortly, this practice can produce some detrimental outcomes.

Why Do We Focus on the Bad?

Before I discuss what happens when we focus on the bad, I want to discuss briefly why we tend to do this—why we tend to punish the bad behavior rather than reinforcing the good. Here are at least a couple reasons.

First, we often assume that people should just know what they’re supposed to do. For instance, when a child acts in some undesired way, we say, “Well, he should just know better.” Or when a new boyfriend or girlfriend says something that hurts our feelings, we say, “Well, I didn’t think I had to tell you that—I just assumed you knew.”

But if you think about it, why should the child or the new significant other (or anyone else, for that matter) always know what they’re supposed to do?

Children who are newly exploring their worlds do not “just know” that climbing on the kitchen counter is wrong (especially when doing so results in a cookie). New boyfriends or girlfriends don’t “just know” what their new partners like or don’t like. And new employees don’t “just know” know what the culture of their new workplaces is. In each of these cases, they have to learn much of what is appropriate.

And importantly, if they’re not explicitly being told that something is wrong, to some extent, they’re implicitly being told that it’s perfectly acceptable (just like the child getting a cookie).

When we assume that others know exactly what we know, it’s easy to resort to punishment as a way to let them know their actions are unacceptable to us.

Second, we tend to focus on the bad because we are wired to be sensitive to things that annoy or threaten us. This is a holdover from the “olden” days when certain “annoying” events (like mountain lions or poisonous flowers or bad weather) literally had the ability to injure or even kill people. Because our ancestors who survived were presumably more sensitive to these dangers (otherwise they wouldn’t have survived), we also tend to be sensitive to annoying things in our lives.

Moreover, when something is annoying or threatening, we take steps to get rid of it. When we use punishment, especially at fairly intense amounts, it’s usually effective at quickly removing these annoying events. What we ultimately learn when we use punishment, then, is that it’s a useful strategy for getting rid of things that bother us.

No wonder people—myself included—are so quick to yell at others, to give people “the look,” to withdraw their affection, and so on.

Punishment: The Side Effects of Yelling and “The Look”

Unfortunately, there are numerous side effects that happen when we use punishment with other people.

The “punisher” becomes associated with the punishment. Because people tend to dislike punishment, it means they may come to dislike the person who delivers the punishment. The child whose parents frequently spank him might come to dislike, resent, or become very anxious around his parents.

Punishment doesn’t tell people what they should do instead. It simply tells them what they did wrong. A baseball coach who screams at a player to “stop throwing to second base” isn’t telling the player where he or she should throw instead.

If punishment is infrequent, it tends to be ineffective. If you doubt this point, consider speeding tickets. Most people speed much more often than they receive a ticket. If a single “punisher” was effective, they’d stop speeding after they got their first ticket.

Using punishment tells others that this is an acceptable way to deal with other people. A parent who hits her children may later have children who hit their children.

Unfortunately, because punishment works in the short term, we frequently use it. And as you probably might guess, this approach is often detrimental to social relationships.

So, if punishment is probably not the best strategy to use, what should we do instead?

Catch ‘Em Doing Something Good!

Rather than punishing another person’s undesired behavior, we should catch ’em doing something good. We should use reinforcement to increase the good rather than use punishment to decrease the bad.

This approach has numerous benefits, not the least of which are:

People typically like reinforcement (although “liking” is technically not required for something to be a “reinforcer”), which means that it tends to build up, rather than break down, relationships.

Reinforcement, unlike punishment, doesn’t need to be delivered as frequently to be effective. Just like the gambler who plays a slot machine over and over for infrequent wins, catching people doing something good every so often is usually enough to produce positive outcomes.

Hopefully, by now, you understand why it’s so important to minimize our use of punishment and increase our use of reinforcement. (Of course, there may be times when you have to use punishment in your relationships. For example, if my child is about to run out into traffic, you can bet that I’m going to scream at him. That’s the only way I can avoid the unthinkable alternative.)

But more often than not, we should strive to use reinforcement with other people in our lives. As much as possible, we should try to “catch ’em doing something good.” And when they do:

Give ’em a sincere compliment.

Tell ’em you appreciate ’em.

Thank ’em for everything they do.

Tell ’em exactly what they’re doing that you like.

Ultimately catching others doing something good will require us to be persistent in our efforts (because reinforcement often takes longer to “work” than punishment); it may also require us to be more consciously aware of when annoying things are affecting us and when we feel motivated to revert back to our punishing ways.

But the rewards are well worth the effort.

So, as the weekend rapidly approaches, and as we think about building relationships with others in our lives, let’s do our best to “catch ’em doing something good.”


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Some Reasons I’m Grateful

It’s just before 3:30 PM on Wednesday afternoon, and the house is quiet. My wife and kids are running errands, and my dog is out cold on the couch.

The windows are open, and it’s raining out. Although it’s been well into the 90s over the last few days, right now, the air is cool, and a nice breeze is blowing into the house. The gentle patter of rain drops has lulled me into a state of relaxation.

Quite often, when things are quiet and there’s no one else around, I get introspective and think about my life.

Hence this blog post.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude and all of the great things I’m lucky to have.

Maybe it’s because I’m (technically) “middle aged” and have started to think a little more about the “big picture.”

Or maybe it’s because I spend a little too much time on Facebook and Twitter, where complaining tends to run rampant (which makes me want to yell, “Shut up, and realize how good most of us have it!”)

Or maybe it’s for some other reason that I’m unaware of right now (and really don’t want to take the time to think about).

Regardless, I just wanted to take a minute and come up with a short gratitude list: some reasons why I’m especially grateful right now.

I have an awesome family. My wife, my kids, my parents, my brother and his family, and the rest of my in-laws are all great people. I live far away from most of them, but I’m still lucky enough to see them a few times a year. And when we get together, we have a lot of fun.

I have great friends. I probably don’t spend as much time with them as I should, but when I do, we always create great stories.

I’m healthy. Yeah, I could stand to lose a few pounds (and I’m working on it), but that’s a relative drop in the bucket compared to the health issues that many others deal with on a day-to-day basis.

My family is healthy. My wife is a kick-ass CrossFitter (check out this story on her), and my kids rarely get anything other than the sniffles.

My family is hilarious. The things my kids say leave us in stitches on a daily basis.

I have the best dog in the world. You may think you have the best dog in the world, but you are wrong. My dog, Papi (which is short for Papiamento, the native tongue of Aruba), is better than your dog. Science has confirmed it.

I have a cool job that gives me the opportunity to have a lasting influence on others—something that has been a primary goal of mine ever since I decided to become a college professor. I don’t know to what extent I’ve achieved this goal, but it’s at least nice to know that the opportunity is there.

My job gives me a ton of flexibility. College professors typically work a lot of hours, but we usually have the flexibility to work where and when we want. I like dictating how I spend most of my days.

I am fortunate to live in a nice house with a great view of the Blue Ridge Mountains (although you can’t really see them right now with the rain coming down).

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to rediscover my passion for playing guitar. It’s something I loved doing when I was younger but believed I didn’t have the time to do anymore. (Oh, how wrong I was!)

So, there you have it—a few things I’m incredibly grateful for at this point in my life.

Why We Need to Show Gratitude

Fortunately, there’s a growing body of research showing that gratitude has a significant effect on happiness and psychological well-being. In one study, for example, Emmons and McCollough found that having people write down five things they were grateful for significantly increased their positive emotions. Similarly, Toepfer and colleagues found that writing letters of gratitude increased happiness and life satisfaction and decreased signs of depression. Numerous other studies show similar results.

(If you want to read more scientific research on gratitude, do a Google Scholar search for “gratitude” and “happiness.” And if you want to see more tips on increasing happiness, check out this cool TED talk).

Unfortunately, we tend to be pretty bad at showing gratitude sometimes. Rather than identify the good things we have going on in our lives, we tend to focus on the bad things. We say things like:

“It’s raining out.”

“It’s too hot out.”

“It’s too cold out.”

“My car has a flat tire.

“My kids messed up the house.”

“My dog messed up the house.”

“I have class at 10 AM, and I’m soooo tired.”

“I have to study for an exam.”

“I have to study for the GRE, so I can get into graduate school, but it’s really hard.”

And then we go onto Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat to complain. And our friends chime in and validate our claims. And then, in return, they tell us all the “horrible” things they have going on in their lives. And we chime in and validate their claims.

And then it turns into one giant b–tch session, where we all end up feeling worse than we did before.

What are You Grateful For?

Look, I understand how little things can be annoying (heck, little things annoy me on a near-daily basis). And I certainly understand that some of us have real problems to deal with.

But in the grand scheme of things, most of us have it pretty damn good.

We’re lucky to have great families. We’re lucky to have great friends. We’re lucky to have roofs over our heads and food in our bellies. We’re lucky to have great pets (although mine is still better than yours). We’re lucky to have the opportunity to get amazing educations (which is not the case for 93% of the world’s population). And, yes, we’re even lucky to have Facebook and Twitter and Snapcat accounts, which allow us to stay in touch with loved ones we don’t see very often.

Maybe rather than complaining about all of the bad things, we should take a few minutes each day and be thankful for all of the good things. Even in the midst of our very worst times, we probably can identify several positive things that we have or that are happening to us.

So take a minute right now (or at the end of the day, if that’s better for you) and write down four or five (or 10 or 15) things you’re thankful for. If you’re too busy, or too lazy, to write down that many, just write down one (as The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin does).

You might just find yourself feeling pretty good about things when you do.

In fact, let’s get it started right now! Take a minute and write a few things you’re grateful for in the Comments section below. Let’s get the ball rolling.


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