Why It's So Hard to Be Positive

>> Tuesday

When you try to become positive, you have a similar internal conflict. You will almost always see what's wrong before you see what's right, because your brain has a negative bias. But notice something: With a little practice on the chart above, you can say the right color. It just takes some practice.

And you can also learn to recognize your brain's negative bias and yet not be infected by it. It frees you to look at the world with fresh eyes. To see the beauty, the good, the right. To see your own strength. To see possibility rather than only barriers.

It only takes practice. And the most concentrated, effective form of practice is to Undemoralize Yourself.


Pessimism With Confidence

>> Friday

In one of the best books I've read in a long time, Unbroken, I came across the following: "In the 1930s, track experts were beginning to toss around the idea of a four-minute mile. Most observers, including Cunningham, had long believed that it couldn't be done. In 1935, when Cunningham's record of 4:06.7 reigned, science weighed in. Studying data on human structural limits compiled by Finnish mathematicians, famed track coach Brutus Hamilton penned an article for Amateur Athlete magazine stating that a four-minute mile was impossible. The fastest a human could run a mile, he wrote, was 4:01.6."

I love the exactness of that last number. It seems to convey such confidence. But that kind of confidence is misplaced. One of the most common thought-mistakes causing pessimism (and bringing on the impairment of personal effectiveness and health that comes with it) is overcertainty.

Let's not follow Brutus Hamilton's example. Let's do our best to avoid stating pessimistic conclusions with more certainty than we really have.


The Invisible Gorilla (a Review)

>> Sunday

I just finished what I believe to be an important book: The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. It's about the numerous ways our intuitions deceive us.

This is a surprisingly uplifting book. Insights into the fallibility of our own memories and perceptions can improve our lives, reduce depression, help us make better decisions, ease conflicts between people, and lower anxiety.

The authors have exceptional credentials: One has a PhD from Harvard and the other has a PhD from Cornell. And they conducted some the most famous experiments in the history of psychology, including “the invisible gorilla” experiment.

The book is jam-packed with excellent, real-life examples to illustrate the six everyday illusions, and the practical lessons to be drawn from them. One of the illusions, for example, is the illusion of attention. We are unaware of how much we miss, and the unawareness is not self-correcting. The authors write, “The problem is that we lack positive evidence for our lack of attention...We are aware only of the unexpected objects we do notice, not the ones we have missed. Consequently, all the evidence we have is for good perception of our world.”

But each illusion is compounded by our unawareness of the illusion itself. “The fact that we don't see everything,” they write, “would be far less problematic if we didn't think we see everything.”

Although the authors are pointing out the six illusions because they lead to errors in judgment, the illusions also lead to the same thought-mistakes (cognitive distortions) that lead to unnecessary anxiety and depression. The six illusions are the ultimate source of innumerable marital spats and misunderstandings between people. These same illusions are the source of the demoralization that makes people give up on important goals prematurely and fail in school.

The research the authors discuss is relevant to current controversies on the legality of cell phone use while driving. What most people don't realize (and what experiments consistently show) is that you can look right at something and not see it if your attention is on something else (like a cell phone conversation).

And even though many people have recently become aware that talking on a cell phone while driving impairs one's ability to drive (and some states have even passed laws against the use of hand-held phones) what most people have not yet realized is that studies show hands-free phones impair driving just as much! Actually, phones don't impair driving; they impair attention. But drivers are less likely to see unexpected things and are slower to react even when talking on a hands-free phone.

Another surprising fact is that talking to a passenger sitting next to you in the car doesn't hardly impair your driving ability at all! This book is full of surprising and useful insights like that.

Most of us assume we would see something unexpected if we were looking. It is a mistaken assumption, but something can be done about it. The remedy is to look again and actually look for something unexpected. When participants are warned ahead of time that something unexpected might happen during the gorilla experiment, most of them see the gorilla.

The book is filled with one interesting study after another, presented in a way I found compelling. There is nothing dry or boring in this book. The authors do a good job of connecting what you're reading to many of its real-life applications.

Where were you when you first heard about planes flying into the Twin Towers on 9/11? Most people remember vivid details of that day, many of which are mistaken. In several studies of this event memory, the findings were consistent: 1) people had vivid memories they believed were accurate, 2) the more time that elapses, the more those memories change, and 3) their confidence in their own memory's accuracy remains consistently high for significant events, even though their memories are no more accurate for that event than for anything else. And if you are like most people, you won't believe this is true for you, regardless of the studies.

The authors also wrote about the “Mozart Effect” at considerable length because it so clearly illustrates a particular cognitive illusion: The illusion of potential. According to the media hype, listening to Mozart can increase your IQ. The authors describe the original experiment and subsequent experiments by researchers trying (unsuccessfully) to duplicate the results.

“The illusion of potential” doesn't mean we cannot grow and change; it means “the idea that there is an easy shortcut” is an illusion. The authors do a good job debunking an aspect of that illusion: The myth that we only use 10% of our brains.

The book contains so many interesting experiments with surprising, counterintuitive results, I want to tell you about all of them, but I can't. But here's a good example: Subjects watched a video of a bank robber, and then half of them spent five minutes writing a description of the robber's face. The other half spent the same five minutes doing an unrelated task. When asked to select the robber from a lineup, those who wrote the description were much worse at identifying the right man!

In another study, researchers found that biking or walking in cities was less dangerous the more common it was in that city. Why? Because where lots of people walk and bike, drivers expect to see them. In places where such things are rare, drivers don't expect them, and therefore often don't see them.

Another illusion stems from the fact that our brains are extraordinarily good at recognizing patterns. So good, in fact, that we sometimes see patterns (and attribute meaning) to nothing but random accident. They had some great illustrations of this phenomenon, like the image of the Virgin Mary that appeared on someone's grilled cheese sandwich. “The 'Nun Bun' was a cinnamon pastry whose twisty rolls eerily resembled the nose and jowls of Mother Teresa,” the authors wrote. “It was found in a Nashville coffee shop in 1996, but was stolen on Christmas in 2005. 'Our Lady of the Underpass' was another appearance by the Virgin Mary, this time in the guise of a salt stain under Interstate 94 in Chicago that drew huge crowds and stopped traffic for months. Other cases include the Hot Chocolate Jesus, Jesus on a shrimp tail dinner, Jesus in a dental x-ray, and Cheesus (a Cheeto purportedly shaped like Jesus).”

What makes the six illusions dangerous is the mistaken confidence we each have in the accuracy of our own perceptions, memories, and knowledge.

Would you like to be less gullible? More reasonable? Better able to see what's wrong when someone is making their case? Less depressed or anxious? Read the book, The Invisible Gorilla. Another excellent book on the same topic is: How We Know What Isn't So, by Thomas Gilovich.

You might think there's nothing sexy or uplifting about a book that basically tells you your memory isn't as good as you think, your abilities are not as great as you hope, and you don't notice as much as you believe. But there are plenty of practical, positive, personal benefits to understanding these illusions, and the authors put one of the best ones in the very last paragraph of their book, which I will end with too:

“When you think about the world with an awareness of everyday illusions, you won't be as sure of yourself as you used to be, but you will have new insights into how your mind works, and new ways of understanding why people act the way they do. Often, it's not because of stupidity, arrogance, ignorance, or lack of focus. It's because of the everyday illusions that affect us all. Our final hope is that you will always consider this possibility before you jump to a harsher conclusion.”

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


A Simple Way to Lower Feelings of Stress

>> Friday

Scientists give rats a lot of stress and then see what they can do to reduce stress hormones. Something that successfully lowers stress hormones is vitamin C.

Researcher P. Samuel Campbell and his colleagues found that 200 mg of vitamin C per day reduced the level of stress hormones in the rats' blood. That's a pretty big dose for a little critter. It is the equivalent of several grams of vitamin C per day for you or me, which is actually in the range of what the famous chemist, Linus Pauling recommended. It is also in the range of what chimpanzees — our closest genetic relatives — get in their daily diet in the wild.

Other things that indicated a generally lower stress level for the rats taking the vitamin C were: 1) their adrenal glands didn't enlarge as much as they normally do when rats are constantly stressed, 2) they didn't lose as much weight as the stressed but unmegadosed rats (stress tends to make people put on weight), and 3) their spleens and thymus glands didn't shrink as much.

I'm not a biochemist or a doctor. You can do your own research and draw your own conclusions. I'm noting it here because it is relevant to our topic (improving your mood by reducing stress and anxiety) and can give you an avenue to pursue you might not otherwise have thought about.

If you feel particularly stressed out, it probably wouldn't hurt to take some extra vitamin C and it might even help you feel better.


Negative Emotions Are Bad For Your Brain

According to a research team in Chicago: "People who often feel negative emotions may be more likely to develop memory problems as they age." Read about it here: Chronic Worry Tied to Memory Problems.

The study focused on worry, but of course thought-mistakes of all kinds cause negative emotions. Thought-mistakes make you worry more than is necessary, make you frustrated more often than is fitting to the circumstances, make you feel disheartened by a setback that really won't be as difficult to overcome as you think it will, etc.

If you'd like to reduce the amount of negative emotion you feel, if you'd like to feel good more often, the most effective technique, according to over 600 studies, is to make fewer thought-mistakes in your usual way of thinking. I'm talking about mistakes like overgeneralizing or black-or-white thinking.

And the easiest, quickest way to make fewer thought-mistakes is to use the method outlined in Undemoralize Yourself. Start today cleaning up your thinking. You'll feel better, it'll be good for your relationships and good for your health, and you just might prevent memory problems down the road.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


An Inspiring Story Of Determination

>> Sunday

In an article on YouMeWorks.com, Rocky Balboa and Determination, I mentioned the persistence Sylvester Stallone showed in becoming an actor. Yesterday, I was using StumbleUpon, and I came across an audio clip of Tony Robbins, who knows Sylvester Stallone, telling the story of how Stallone got into the acting business. It's a great story well told. It's about nine minutes long. Check it out:

Stories like this are inspiring, but if that's all they are, they aren't worth a lot. But when an inspiring story is instructive, that can be worth a lot indeed.

Luckily, Stallone teaches us in the Rocky movies, and especially the last one, Rocky Balboa, what kind of thoughts gave him the persistence he needed to make it. And in the article I mentioned above, I describe the way you can think those kinds of thoughts and completely believe them, not by forcing yourself to believe something you doubt, but by searching your disheartening thoughts for the hidden mistakes. Once you find them and recognize they are false, you're free from their demoralizing effects. Your determination and motivation and persistence can then remain strong, and this makes you more likely to achieve your important goals.

So listen to Tony tell the story, and then do the work necessary to develop the kind of persistence Stallone has demonstrated in his career, and make your dreams a reality.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


Why Goals Peter Out (and What You Can Do About It)

>> Friday

Probably biggest killer of a strong sense of purpose is all-or-nothing thinking. "I want to sail around the world," says a young man. But he is married and has a new baby. Obviously he can't go sailing around the world. Or can he? If he's thinking in all-or-nothing terms, he will, of course say "No, I can't go sailing around the world unless I want to be a jerk and leave my wife and child." But that's thinking in one extreme or the other, and life very rarely needs to be so black-or-white.

He wakes up one night with a realization. He has been blinding himself with all-or-nothing thinking! He comes up with a plan. He will set aside twenty dollars a week in a Sailing Fund. As he does better at work, he'll increase that amount. But for now, he uses the money for sailing lessons and boating safety classes and books on celestial navigation, always leaving aside a little to accumulate for the purchase of an actual boat. He learns about boat design.

It takes him three years before he learns enough to decide what design of boat he wants to get. It takes him another year to figure out what course he will chart, what places he will visit, etc. As his son gets older, they go sailing together on rented sailboats. His son learns how to sail. The father teaches him how to reef the sails, how to steer, how to navigate by the stars.

By the time the son is fourteen, the family decides to go for it. They sell their house, buy a sailboat, fill it with supplies, and what do you know? His purpose wasn't silly or impossible after all. It may be, in fact, the highlight of their lives.

Another thing that kills dreams or prevents the development of a strong sense of purpose is that interest dies. But here you have to be careful. Did your interest die because you actually lost interest now that you know more about it, or did your interest die because of the way you're explaining setbacks to yourself?

There are certain ways to explain setbacks in your life that will kill your enthusiasm, destroy your interest, and prevent the development of a sense of purpose. If your interest has been killed by a feeling of defeat, you can revive that dormant interest and fill your life with purpose and meaning. (Read more about that here.)

It's important that the goals you seek give you a sense of meaning — that they aren't only about material gain. It's true that any goal is better than no goal, but it's also true that if you have a choice, you ought to choose high-quality goals, goals that will give you a great deal of satisfaction and even meaning.

Susan Krause Whitbourne did a long-term research project, starting in 1966. She saw a particular psychological measurement steadily decline over the years. It's called "ego integrity," which is a composite characteristic having to do with honesty, a sense of connection with others, a sense of wholeness, and a feeling that life has meaning.

Between 1977 and 1988, ego integrity took a universal dive. The life-satisfaction scores were as low as they could go on her measurements. "People got caught up in chasing the materialistic dream," says Whitbourne, "They got recognition for their achievements, yet don't feel that what they are doing matters in the larger scheme of things."

Your enthusiasm for your goals will peter out if you don't set goals with real meaning for you. And they can peter out if you explain setbacks poorly, making mistakes in your explanations like all-or-nothing thinking. You can check your own thinking with this exercise.

Goals can provide you with one of the most reliable sources of good moods. Making sure your enthusiasm doesn't peter out is worth the trouble.

Read more: Good Moods Require Good Goals.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.



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