The Value of Friendships (Kids & Our Own) — Musings from a Bounce House

I live on the island of Alameda, California — here on the island there is a place that has begun to wear on me. It’s called Pump It Up, a favorite among local parents for children’s birthday parties, and there is nothing inherently bad about this place. I suppose selfishly I do not like it because I have not connected with many people in the parent circle of my kids … and this type of event is solely for our kids. It is boring and no longer novel (because of the amount of times we’ve all been there), and I find myself questioning my existence every time it is my turn on the rotation to take one (or both) of my children to one of these parties. (I wonder if my parents had a similar disdain for Chuck E. Cheese?)

The Value of Friendships

Since I am a psychology geek, I do take solace that these parties provide fertile ground to ponder the value of friendships. One, because it is a fascinating place to watch the storming, norming, forming marvels of childhood. Two, since my children are preoccupied, the experience gives me the space to mindfully explore my own loneliness and my lack of sensibilities in building rapport with strangers (i.e. the other care givers that somehow pulled the short straw that day). The recent resurgence and virality of Harvard’s Grant and Glueck study (which, in part, indicates that men with happier childhoods likely have stronger relationships in old age) has had me recently pondering these subjects more deeply than usual.

Please do not get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t want to be friends with the parents of my kid’s friends. On the contrary, science backs up the notion that good friends can be one of life’s greatest gifts. Alas, I suspect at least half of you reading this are better at building and preserving close relationships than me. If one’s ability to acquire friends has a standard distribution, I am for certain on the losing end of the bell curve. I have always been an odd ball. My psyche is staffed by Tim Burton characters — witty, funny, yet flawed and weird looking. These characters don’t stay in the cage long during cocktail conversations, and they get apathetic easily — they’re looking for wit and humor on the other end, not another conversation about child rearing and my day job. I do have a script for the latter, but it is long and boring. Once this script is triggered, I have literally had parents simply walk away as I meekly fade out my dialogue, embarrassed that I have killed yet another one.

At the risk of doing that to you here, let me get on with it. I know I have to try harder. In her book Friendships Don’t Just Happen, Shasta Nelson points out that making, keeping and changing friends is perhaps one of our most important skills. In reality, I think there are a lot of people like me that feel “developing” friends can be a messy proposition. I, for one, remember reading the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and then putting it down feeling almost as dirty as I did when completing The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. Authenticity is a personal value of mine, so I don’t want to boil down making friends to a “system” — so at these parties I have stopped trying and instead navel gaze while watching the kids play…

Parents have a significant influence on who our kids will be friends with

Different aspects of a child’s personality can be assessed simply by observation (e.g. self-control, self-esteem, mood, relationships with others and self-reliance).  I personally look for self-reliance in my kids since it correlates with success. Self-reliance has been defined by Diana Baumrind, a researcher of human development from the University of California, Berkeley, as ‘the ability of the child to handle his[/her] affairs in an independent fashion relative to other children his [or her] age.’ Things to foster in kids in this regard are: ease of separation from you, willingness to be alone at times, leadership interest and ability, as well as pleasure in learning new tasks. Research by Baumrind (1967) shows that the parenting style that resulted in well-developed self-reliance includes being firm, loving, demanding and understanding. I think my wife and I are doing the best we can here, and building this self-reliance will hopefully lead our kids to more secure friendships.

Less is known about the influence friends and peers have on our child’s development

We know as our kids move through developmental stages, they become increasingly dependent on peer relationships and peer communication. There is little doubt we also influence this. Salient connections have been found between the relationship we have with our kids when compared to their later relationships with friends, as well as with their future romantic partners (Farley & Kim-Spoon, 2014). For instance, one longitudinal study found that adolescents who were insecurely attached to their fathers were more likely to develop an insecure attachment to their best friends. Similarly, insecure attachment to mothers led to more insecure attachments to romantic partners later in life (Doyle, Lawford, & Markiewicz, 2009). Clearly, building strong bonds with our kids is important, because ultimately they get the final decision who they keep as friends.

Why does friendship matter for our kids?

How our children evolve getting along with their peers can be an important predictor of their academic success. North American studies show that children who have a better relationship with their classmates perform better in school, and peer acceptance and attachment have been linked to academic achievement (Kingery, Erdley, & Marshall, 2011). Kids with a bigger social network have more opportunities for engagement, encouragement and support. An extensive literature review by Burack and colleagues showed that children with more positive peer relations also show more prosocial behavior, self-esteem and perceived support, and are less likely to develop depression, aggression and anxiety (Burack et al., 2013). Close relationships with peers have been found to provide children with a safe base from which he or she can explore and develop (Laible, Carlo, & Raffaelli, 2000).

Why does friendship matter for us?

I am in my 40s now. Unfortunately, a simple truth is that once parenthood hits it gets more difficult to connect with others. There is a really good 2012 New York Times article by Alex Williams where he examines the topic of making friends as an adult. Williams points out to make close friends three conditions need to be fulfilled: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages interactions that can be confidential. Unfortunately, these conditions are often difficult to fulfill once we have a job, a partner and/or a family.

Do I work too hard to have friends?

Some authors wonder if becoming successful results in having less contact with family and friends, which could create a sense of loneliness – ‘the top is not a crowded place’ (Reinking, & Bell, 1991). However, various scientific studies contradict the notion it is lonely at the top. Those who hustle actually have reported less loneliness compared to those that work fewer hours in comparison (Bell et al., 1990), and another study from the 1990s looked at people’s position in organizational hierarchy (which was interpreted as a level of success) and their corresponding loneliness. The findings support the premise that employees working at higher levels of an organizational hierarchy are not lonelier when compared to those working at lower levels (Reinking, & Bell, 1991).  This is further supported by a recent Harvard Business Review article currently making the rounds: Does Work Make You Happy? Evidence from the World Happiness Report.

Conclusion: True friendships are invaluable

The final act of a Pump It Up party is the cutting of the cake. It is at this point I generally find myself pinching my leg until it is time to leave. The uneasiness reminds me I miss adult parties with my own friends; but the truth is this is self-inflicted misery — merely a by-product of not prioritizing pre-existing relationships accordingly. I can do better. Kid’s parties, whether I like them or not, are also important for developing good social habits in my children. The influence I yield about viewpoints on friendship influences my children’s behaviors and characteristics. It will develop how they relate to their peers. Science tells me children with more secure attachments, develop more secure friendships. My children’s ability to connect with their peers will likely influence their academic achievement since being accepted by your peers is correlated with academic success. I also know that the simple truth I am mindful of all of this means no matter how bad I fuck up (and I will), they’ll probably turn out okay.

As we grow older, for many (myself included) it is simply difficult to meet new people who become close friends, so we revere early relationships which provide us the positive support and encouragement we need to continue to develop and grow. Those that get my newsletter know my little brother recently passed away. If it was not for the support of my best friend from college, Micah, I don’t think I would have made it. If you are familiar with Dunbar’s work, then you already know science says we can only have five close friends anyway; if true, I’m truly a lucky man Micah is one of them.

We need the bonds of friendship to flourish. The presumption that people who work more become detached from their family and friends has not been supported by science, so this cannot be used as an excuse. We can, however, do a better job staying connected to old friends no matter what the distance and circumstances. As the findings from the Grant and Glueck study suggest, it might be one of the best things we can do for our well-being.

The Value of Friendship

So … maybe it’s time to get the gang back together, tap a keg, and rent a bounce house suitable for adults? We won’t let the kids in, they can sit outside, bored; let them talk about how silly and annoying we are for a change.

Sources & further reading:

Baumrind, D. (1967). Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75(1), 43-88.

Bell, R., Roloff, M., Vancamp, K., & Karol, S. (1990). Is it lonely at the top – Career success and personal relationships. Journal of Communication, 40(1), 9-23.

Burack, J. A., D’Arrisso, A., Ponizovsky, V., Troop-Gordon, W., Mandour, T., Tootoosis, C., & … Fryberg, S. (2013). “Friends and Grades”: Peer Preference and Attachment Predict Academic Success among Naskapi Youth. School Psychology International, 34(4), 371-386.

Doyle, A.B., Lawford, H., Markiewicz, D. (2009). Attachment style with mother, father, best friend, and romantic partner during adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 19:690–714. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-7795.2009.00617.x.

Farley, J. P., & Kim-Spoon, J. (2014). The development of adolescent self-regulation: Reviewing the role of parent, peer, friend, and romantic relationships. Journal Of Adolescence, 37433-440. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2014.03.009

Kingery, J. N., Erdley, C. A., & Marshall, K. C. (2011). Peer Acceptance and Friendship as Predictors of Early Adolescents’ Adjustment Across the Middle School Transition. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 57(3). 215-243.

Laible, D. J., Carlo, G., & Raffaelli, M. (2000). The Differential Relations of Parent and Peer Attachment to Adolescent Adjustment. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 29(1), 45-59.

Reinking, K., & Bell, R. A. (1991). Relationships among loneliness, communications competence, and career success in a state bureaucracy: a field study of the ‘lonely at the top’ maxim. Communication Quarterly, (4), 358.

Can You Really be Addicted to Fun?

Hello, my name is Mike Rucker, and I am a fun addict.

This should not surprise anyone. I pretty much have been my whole life. Admittedly, this passion has gotten me into trouble from time to time. For me, channeling this obsession by creating better user experiences (UX) grounds my passion with a purpose. I want people to enjoy what they are doing. I want people to have more fun.

Can You Really be Addicted to Fun?

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for things that are initially described as “fun” to turn into addictions — and, at extremes, pathological obsessions. For instance, neuroscience has shown us that the brain structure changes in people who obsessively play video games (but who are not yet considered addicted). In these individuals, the volume of the player’s gray matter increases in their left ventral striatum — an area of our brain associated with both reward/pleasure and addiction (Kuhn et al., 2011). This region of our brain is also known for being rich in dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter) and is connected with the pursuit of desired experiences. It should be no surprise that dopamine has been playfully described as the sex, drugs and rock and roll neurotransmitter, as all three of these activities affect dopamine in the brain — so does sugar and gambling (Avena, Rada, & Hoebel, 2008).

Considering the role dopamine plays in experiencing pleasure, it is not that difficult to understand how addictive behaviors (that release dopamine) can evolve out of initially pleasurable and fun experiences. Having fun in a healthy manner is a rewarding endeavor. Moreover, the allure of fun can motivate us, at least at the onset, to dare big and pursue worthy goals.

Too Much of a Good Thing

“Behavioral” addictions have now been widely recognized as non-substance addictions (that can also develop with or without substance addictions). Neuroimaging techniques and recent research show that it is not only alcohol and recreational drugs that are addictive. Behavioral addictions trigger the same fundamental responses in the body as, for example, cocaine (Grant et al., 2010).

A lot of common activities have the potential to become addictive, though the topic of what behaviors can be considered behavioral addictions is still open for (popular and scientific) debate (Grant et al., 2010). The word addiction has a Latin origin that translates as “bound to” or “enslaved by.” In general terms: I have been addicted to running; I am a recovering addict to travel; I would like to think I am addicted to trying to be a good father and friend.

There is perhaps a fine line between something being an enjoyable activity that brings us fulfillment and an activity that we become dependent on and/or use as a technique for escapism — a distraction that can stand in the way of dealing with real-life situations and feelings. Like Airbnb and Everlast executive Chip Conley recently discussed with me about those that get trapped roaming from one festival to the next looking for fun, “… if you just constantly go to festivals because you cannot live your normal life, or live in real life and/or you are searching for a utopian experience … festivals always come to an end. If you are going to festivals as a way to vacate in some manner, I think you need to ask yourself, ‘What could I do in my ‘normal’ life to make it better?’”

In this context, you can interchange festival attendance with whatever you do for fun. I think Chip’s wisdom applies to all of us in a broader context.

Escapism is a well-known phenomenon in psychology that is often described in conjunction with addictive behaviors. In my youth, especially during my years in high school, I levitated to mood-altering experiences to avoid my boredom and loneliness. I certainly was not alone in this pursuit. Unfortunately, many often continue down this path even when they are aware they’re not getting to the crux of their problem (Reid et al., 2011). And like many, I am still not out of the woods. I traded counterproductive vices for more productive ones … entrepreneurship, Ironmans, this neurotic writing habit. Long distance running or a 2-hour session at the gym can be paradoxically both healthy and unhealthy — just because an activity is marketed to you as healthy does not mean it is being put to use for its intended purpose. Psychologists believe that escapism can become harmful when you start splitting your world into two versions: the real version and the version that is connected with the activity you frivolously pursue (Ohno, 2016). Jesse Israel’s post on his wellness hangover does a great job highlighting this phenomenon.

Furthermore, as modern life becomes more and more stressful and demanding, there is a whole new level of “mind-programming” going on (facilitated by the media and society) that tells us we need to constantly have fun just to make life bearable. A new generation of pleasure seekers has emerged, and they are not necessarily having fun — they are redlining their psyche as they battle cry, “turn down for what.”

In their recent book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal estimate that we spend over 4 trillion (yes, with a ‘t’) dollars on various types of escapism. As such, questioning the reasons and motives for us having fun is, therefore, a relevant pursuit. A lot of my livelihood, especially as it pertains to UX design, is providing fertile ground for people like yourself to have fun experiences. Maximizing fun is a personal passion, but it needs to coexist with my personal value of not causing harm.

Hedonism vs. Ego Depletion — an Evolutionary Perspective

In my interview with Chip, Chip juxtaposes pleasurable experiences that are guided by hedonistic self-interest with experiences that give you a sense of being a part of something greater than yourself (and that move you beyond your own selfish needs) — collective effervescence. Both types of experience can be a source of fun. However, while the first takes you to your basic instincts, the latter has the ability to enable you to transcend your ego.

Hedonism and hedonistic activities have traditionally been considered a special variety of egoism. Philosophers talk of psychological hedonism. This refers to engaging in certain activities because we believe that they will lead to the fulfillment of a desire that will promote our pleasure, or, alternatively, will help us avoid pain (Garson, 2016). This type of fun has instant gratification, but it also has its faults.

Of important note, from an evolutionary standpoint, a strong argument has been made against hedonism. Philosopher Elliot Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson, the authors of Unto Others, argue that hedonists are likely not good at child-rearing and that such behavior can be energetically costly — hence evolution has probably prioritized altruists (Sober & Wilson, 1998). Natural selection has promoted behaviors that are reliable, available through genetic mutations, and energetically efficient.

Those in the constant pursuit of fun through hedonists’ means might not fare that well in the long run if they constantly run around seeking their own pleasure (without considering others, especially their offspring). When we blend psychology, biology, anthropology and philosophy — care for others and selfless behavior somewhat surprisingly emerge as important features of human nature that, according to Sober and Wilson, have developed through natural selection.

In Defense of Hedonism

Associate professor Justin Garson, a philosopher of biology from Hunter College, explains another form of hedonism, which he refers to as “reinforcement hedonism” or R-hedonism (as opposed to inferential hedonism or I-hedonism, which is the more egoistic type described above). In this type of psychological hedonism, we have fun from just thinking about the satisfaction of a desire. In Garson’s view, hedonism does not need to be linked only to your own hedonistic desires; it can expand to the welfare of others as well (Garson, 2016). For instance, you can derive great pleasure thinking about the possibility of world peace — which is a very non-egoistic desire that could be considered closer to altruism. Dr. Raj Raghunathan, professor at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas, Austin, also suggests that having fun can bring you closer to being more altruistic, happy, healthy, productive and creative. In his view, it is important to have fun, in a way that specifically works for you (for more on that, see my discussion with Raj).

Can you really have too much fun or be addicted to fun?

There is a body of evidence that too much of anything can be harmful, and any addiction has the potential to psychologically enslave you in some way. A hard truth is that our time on this rock is finite — so you probably do not need this perspective from a psychologist to intuitively know that if we overly commit to one pursuit, we will likely live an unbalanced life.

A strong indication that “fun” of any sort has become a problem is if you start having diminished control over your behavior and experience undesirable consequences, as these are common characteristics of addiction (Grant et al., 2010). Also, the distinction between fun and escapism is not always clear-cut and requires some deep reflection on your part. It is up to you to decide if the pursuit of fun has become counterproductive. Make no mistake, fun is an important ingredient of a meaningful and happy life. However, since I am advocating a life full of fun, I have felt compelled to provide an important service announcement: a dose of mindfulness might be required if/when fun gets in the way of you living. In fact, it might be one of only a handful of ways an ecstatic life can truly be reached.

Sources & further reading:

Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20–39. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019

Garson, J. (2016). Two types of psychological hedonism. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, 567-14. doi:10.1016/j.shpsc.2015.10.011

Grant, J. E., Potenza, M. N., Weinstein, A., & Gorelick, D. A. (2010). Introduction to Behavioral Addictions. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36(5), 233–241.

Kuhn, S., Romanowski, A., Schilling, C., Lorenz, R., Morsen, C., Seiferth, N., & … Gallinat, J. (2011). The neural basis of video gaming. Translational Psychiatry, 1. doi:10.1038/tp.2011.53

Ohno, S. (2016). Internet escapism and addiction among Japanese senior high school students. International Journal of Culture & Mental Health, 9(4), 399. doi:10.1080/17542863.2016.1226911

Reid, R. C., Li, D. S., Lopez, J., Collard, M., Parhami, I., Karim, R., & Fong, T. (2011). Exploring Facets of Personality and Escapism in Pathological Gamblers. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 11(1), 60-74. doi:10.1080/1533256X.2011.547071

Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

I am an endless knowledge seeker, so on first pass I naturally scoff at the notion we could somehow be blissfully ignorant. AS such, on face value, “is ignorance bliss?” seems like an asinine question. My desire to educate myself on how to be happy has fueled my involvement with the International Positive Psychology Association and my study of academic thought leaders in this space — people like Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, and Barbara Fredrickson — to learn ways to be happier. However, lately I have observed that there are a lot of instances where more information leads to dismay. At a basic level, I watched my one-year-old son thoroughly enjoy a simple train set for months.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

There is a great store where we live that has cheap, recycled toy train parts, so my wife and I continued to introduce train pieces and have made my son’s set more robust over the past few months. We loved doing it for him because he couldn’t get enough… until the day he did. As we continued to add disparate train pieces with the best of intentions, some trains do not fit certain tracks — some trains fit the existing track but are too tall to go under the existing bridge that came with the original set. What has ensued is confusion and frustration. I have let it go on because I think the development of problem solving outweighs the loss of bliss my son used to achieve when the set was simply enjoyable. However, this loss of bliss is observably noticeable and therefore significant. We are basically making my son unhappy by introducing new information.

Scientifically, happiness is a choice. It is a choice about where your single processor brain will devote its finite resources as you process the world. —Shawn Achor

Have you ever found yourself in a supermarket, surrounded by an aisle of different choices, wishing there was only one available? Science tells us endless options can be anxiety-provoking. When faced with choice, we use a lot of energy to make our final choice. When there is an abundance of choice, the cost is an increased chance that you will regret your final decision later. If you want to feel like you made a solid choice, you need to scrutinize all the available information you have available and then (once you process all this information) make your decision. But, as a general rule, does more information actually contribute to a more satisfactory outcome? How much information do we need to make an informed decision, engage in play, achieve flow, take action or simply be happy?

The topic of choice touches on different areas of our personal and professional life. Choice contributes to our happiness, as well as our social arrangements. We can view the argument of “ignorance is bliss” through the lenses of behavioral psychology, philosophy, politics, education and marketing sciences. The topic is provocative since it juxtaposes our general wish for autonomy with a more paternalistic and prescriptive view. In a world that is filled with seemingly constant impulses and endless options, we would often like to believe we are happier when we have all the information. However, this might not always be congruent with the desire to reduce our stress and feel balanced.

When Choosing Feels like Losing

The paradox of choice is not a new phenomenon; we can observe it in different areas of our lives, from the food we eat to who we are attracted to. Nowadays, there are so many options available to us in every aspect of our life. If you are not completely satisfied or happy, why not dump what you have and replace it (or even him/her) with another version?  Why should you practice discipline and perseverance when it is so easy to find yourself a superior model to what you have now? Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote extensively about the paradox of choice and argues that Americans do not seem to be benefiting from all the choice that is available to us (Schwartz, 2004).

Various research also shows us that when more choice is available, we are more likely to be dissatisfied with what we finally choose. Jonathan D’Angelo and Catalina Toma (2016) explored this idea in their study of online dating. When participants selected their dates from a larger set of people, they were more doubtful about their dating choice a week later (when compared to those who had fewer potential partners to choose from). A similar observation has been made in marketing. Studies show that people who spend more time deliberating about a decision can later feel a sense of loss towards the options they did not pick. During what we perceive to be a careful selection process, we develop a sense of attachment to our decisions, which researchers believe might be harmful to our well-being (Carmon, Wertenbroch, & Zeelenberg, 2003). The premise “choosing feels like losing” has been introduced. Choosing from a set of options can lead us to a feeling of post-choice discomfort.  Once we opt for one option, we no longer possess the other — that’s just a fact. Instead of feeling a sense of relief about finally making a decision, we let negative feelings creep in and we start to feel dissatisfied. Rebecca Ratner of the University of Maryland and her colleagues explored different strategies that can help us help others in their decision-making process. They indicate that providing good information is one of them, but restricting options or adding restrictive options are also recommended (Ratner et al., 2008). For instance, pre-committing to a choice can free us from having to face the decision later, and can also help with self-control when more options become available. It is part of the science that makes restrictive diets like WHOLE30 episodically successful. Simply put, if we can manufacture a predisposition to making (and sticking with) a decision it makes our life a lot less challenging.

When Are You Most Free to Make Autonomous Choices?

Although we all generally value autonomy, there appears to be some ambivalence surrounding this topic. For instance, in education, some studies of problem-based learning showed that while students welcomed some degree of autonomy afforded by this technique, they were also engaged during more prescriptive approaches to studying (Harmer & Stokes, 2016). It appears that paternalism can sometimes free our energy to engage in life in a more efficient way.

From a philosophical stance, there is also a vibrant debate about what constitutes choice. It is pretty easy to find critics anytime the idea of a “forced choice” is brought up. For example, in the West, we have the freedom to choose (and this is widely lauded). However, sometimes, there is the subtle (unspoken) condition that we ought to choose the right thing. If we fail to do that, we can be ostracized and, and in a way we lose some of our freedom to choose (Žižek, 1989). How many “forced choices” do we make just to remain a part of our community (or “tribe”) and conform to the expectations of our environment? In choice, too, there appears to be a degree of ignorance we are willing to accept to “keep the peace” and avoid the cognitive dissidence of malalignment with the philosophy of our peers.

So a strong scientific argument can be made that a plethora of choices can create decision fatigue. Our mind simply cannot cope with an endless amount of information; our decision capacity runs out, and at this point we run the risk of making bad decisions. Our mood can worsen when we are faced with too many choices as well. Research shows that too much choice leads to suboptimal decisions (Schwartz, 2004). Therefore, significant decisions should not be made when we are fatigued or in a bad mood. This was illustrated by a study of judicial decisions conducted at four major prisons in Israel (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011). The authors examined parole decisions made by experienced judges. It transpired that having a break (thus feeling less fatigued) influenced the judges’ ruling. More favorable decisions were made in the mornings (at the start of the work day) and after food breaks — this pattern was predictable, possibly confirming our need to rest and replenish our energy before making an important decision. It appears a good decision can sometimes be more about the timing, and less about the choices we are presented with. The saying “sleep on it” might sound simplistic, but it has some scientific credence.

Then, there is the scientific theory behind choice architecture. If you are interested in going down the rabbit hole of choice and well-being, I suggest following Brian Wansink. In various studies, Dr. Wansink has shown that if you crowd out the ability to make bad decisions by rigging your environment towards a bias to make good ones, you can steer yourself and/or others towards healthy behaviors (never the wiser that they’ve been unwittingly influenced). As I became aware firsthand in my study about workplace wellness strategies, people do not like to know their choices have been limited; however, if the reduction of choice is unobserved, one can rig the system for people to make specific decisions (arguably in their best interest) based on controlling the information available to them.

When Are You Most Free to Be Creative?

A study by Associate Professors Anne-Laure Sellier and Darren W. Dahl challenged the established belief that having more choice fuels creativity. They conducted two experiments that focused on knitting and crafting. The selection of creative inputs was increased from moderate to extensive: a bigger selection of yarn colors in the case of knitting; and a larger selection of shapes for a Christmas tree decoration in the case of crafting. Interestingly, the creative output of experienced and knowledgeable participants was negatively affected by more choice. Those who were less experienced, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be effected by the change in choice but it did not enhance their expereince either. The authors concluded that restricted choice could be better for creative success as it allows us to focus more — and actually enjoy the creative process more — particularly if already experienced or skilled in that pursuit (Sellier & Dahl, 2011).

One of my heroes, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a couple of decades ago wrote how restricting choice could reduce stress and anxiety. Choice does give us the feeling that we can be more creative. However, this feeling is just that — a feeling — it is generally an illusion. Science suggests we have more difficulty focusing and enjoying an activity when provided with an extensive choice.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

Is Ignorance Bliss? Maybe.

Science tends to back up why my wife and I might have been unintentional wet blankets. When we have too much information, we risk the potential of decision paralysis. We are given less room to follow our creative paths, engage in flow and — let’s face it — sometimes enjoy ourselves. Other studies by Darren Dahl also highlighted that the highest level of enjoyment is achieved when there is a right balance between restriction (e.g. providing limits around a task) and the freedom to create with autonomy (Dahl & Moreau, 2007). It is important to note that while researching this topic has in no way curtailed my thirst for knowledge, but it has garnered a new respect for the relationship our happiness has with information and choice. For many of us, happiness is a choice. We don’t need to be ignorant to be blissful, but waiting around for the right information does not appear to help any either. To contrary, in some cases it may do the opposite.

Sources & further reading:

Carmon, Z., Wertenbroch, K., & Zeelenberg, M. (2003). Option attachment: when deliberating makes choosing feel like losing. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(1), 15–29.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Dahl, D. W., & Moreau, C. P. (2007). Thinking Inside the Box: Why Consumers Enjoy Constrained Creative Experiences. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 44(3), 357. doi:10.1509/jmkr.44.3.357

D’Angelo, J., & Toma, C. (2016). There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea: The Effects of Choice Overload and Reversibility on Online Daters’ Satisfaction With Selected Partners. Media Psychology, 1-27. doi:10.1080/15213269.2015.1121827

Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 108(17),6889-6892

Harmer, N., & Stokes, A. (2016). “Choice may not necessarily be a good thing”: student attitudes to autonomy in interdisciplinary project-based learning in GEES disciplines. Journal of Geography In Higher Education, 40(4), 531-545. doi:10.1080/03098265.2016.1174817

Ratner, R. K., Soman, D., Zauberman, G., Ariely, D., Carmon, Z., Keller, P. A., & … Wertenbroch, K. (2008). How behavioral decision research can enhance consumer welfare: From freedom of choice to paternalistic intervention. Marketing Letters, (3/4). 383

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Sellier, A., & Dahl, D. W. (2011). Focus!! Creative Success Is Enjoyed Through Restricted Choice. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 48(6), 996-1007. doi:10.1509/jmr.10.0407

Žižek, S. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso Books.

What is the Meaning of Legacy and Why Do You Want to Leave One?

What is the Meaning of Legacy?

Have you ever thought what you want on your tombstone? Or wondered what gives you the drive to hustle? Are you the benevolent type, but still have enough ego that you want to be remembered for all the good you did in the world? There are many forces that help drive us to pursue, and the desire to leave a legacy is one of the strongest.

This inherent drive to leave a legacy can manifest in a range of ways: from a desire to have children to wanting to lead a visionary movement that transforms a society. Although the manifestation of the process might differ between individuals, most of us seem to have a desire to create a legacy — to leave something behind when we go. Our desire for legacy can be biological, material, and/or it can be expressed as our values and hard-won knowledge that we pass on to family and friends (Hunter & Rowles, 2005).

What is the Meaning of Legacy?

The word legacy comes from a Latin word legatus, translated as ‘embassador, envoy, deputy.’ In the late 14th century, an old French word legacie was used to describe a body of persons sent on a mission. We can therefore look at legacy metaphorically that when we create a legacy, what we are really doing is appointing our spokesperson for the future. Most of us —  either explicit or unknowingly — have a desire for either symbolic or literal immortality (i.e. literal immortality is some belief that there is an afterlife). This seems especially strong in those of us that understand death is inevitable (Sligte, Nijstad, & De Dreu, 2013). Our legacy, if adequately left, transcends the realms of our physical life and brings symbolic immortality.

As our awareness of mortality grows, it brings into focus internal concerns and questions about why we exist. For many, this quest for purpose begins once we realize that the opportunity to leave our mark is finite. For others, this realization can lead fear — a threat to one’s sense of self that we will likely soon be forgotten. Thus, people try to negotiate what us scientists call ‘mortality salience’ in different ways (Sligte, Nijstad, & De Dreu, 2013). When reminded of our impending death, we often look for ways to transcend that feeling and employ different psychological mechanisms to reach symbolic immortality. For instance, we are compelled to connect with influential social groups, because a group’s existence generally transcends the existence of a single individual. Furthermore, groups also bolster our self-esteem and nurture our belief that the world meets the standards and values within our worldview — a rationalization that everything will end well. This has been explored in depth by Terror Management Theory or TMT, which was proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski and Sheldon Solomon (1986).

To create legacy some of us — I fall into the category —turn to our creative side. By introducing new ideas, designs, novel products and original solutions into our current reality we possess the potential to influence societies (and dare I say the world) in a way that will outlive ourselves. Studies have shown that creativity is often used as a force of legacy, especially when the expression of creativity is socially valued — after all, we love our friends… our peers… our ‘tribes’ and most of us either explicitly or secretly want their recognition (Sligte, Nijstad, & De Dreu, 2013).

Why Do You Want to Leave a Legacy?

The crux of legacy is that we look for ways to be existentially reassured our life mattered. We bargain with death as we go through the psychological cycle of grieving our inevitable non-existence (Ross, 1969). We want to leave a legacy because before we can psychologically accept the reality of our own physical annihilation, we put up one hell of a fight. Science suggests a desire to leave something behind when we pass naturally increases as we age (Newton, Herr, Pollack, & McAdams, 2013). Those of us that have had long and productive careers seem to be challenged the most by the process of aging (Wexler & Long, 2009). Intuitively this makes sense; if you worked hard all your life — inevitably making personal sacrifices along the way — you want to believe your life amounted to something in the eyes’ of others because you will not be around to tell your story. You want some recognition for living a dedicated life. Again, various studies suggest the closer to death we get, the more we crave this immortality. A study of women that were faced with a life-threatening illness showed that all subjects consciously started the process of legacy transmission (Hunt, 2007), which could be interpreted that legacy closely links with our relationship to death and mortality.

Many authors also think that the wish to create a legacy is connected both with generativity and narcissism (Newton, Herr, Pollack, & McAdams, 2013). Generativity is a psychological concept, usually regarded as a positive one — generativity often emerges in midlife and can be connected with parenthood or other social roles, such as mentoring. Erikson (1974) defined it as “…the establishment, the guidance, and the enrichment of the living generation and the world it inherits.” Erikson viewed it as a concept that is often focused on the next generation and an inherent individual care for its well-being. Narcissism, on the other hand, is usually viewed as a more negative concept (though there is a distinction between normal and pathological narcissism). Generativity is focused on others, while the concept of narcissism focuses on one self. We could therefore conclude that wanting to leave a legacy on some level is associated with narcissism since you do not need to be remembered to help society. It appears that legacy is likely a combination of both selflessness and narcissism (Rubinstein, 1996).

Many people indeed associate a need for legacy with ego; an act of ego beyond death. In contrast, the desire to selflessly change the world is viewed as more altruistic in nature — those that do things anonymously and do not wish to be recognized for it. Nonetheless, some point out that legacy has the potential to go beyond the ego and be weighted in altruism. It can surpass cultural constraints and become a broader aspect of human development that is a psychological driver of greater good (Hunt, 2007).

One thing about legacy that science seems to agree on is that this desire is somewhat universally seeded in us. Since it is often connected with having children and passing either goods, values, knowledge and/or wisdom onto them, being childless can (in some people) create a feeling of despair and/or sadness as they feel they are no outlets to leave a legacy (Rubinstein, 1996). It was observed that some childless women looked for other ways to meaningfully influence and support others (e.g. family members, community), or alternatively they wanted to create a legacy that related to the whole human species. This desire can sometimes drive very old people to participate in, for example, antinuclear protests even if building more nuclear power plants probably isn’t going to influence them anymore. Some studies show that older people, it can be more important to pass on values and beliefs than material possessions (Hunter, 2007). It is clear that legacy means different things to different people, but that for most of us it is the pursuit of symbolic immortality that drives us.


Sources & further reading:

Erikson, E. H. (1974). Dimensions of a new identity. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Public self and private self (pp. 189-212). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Hunter, E. G. (2007). Beyond death: inheriting the past and giving to the future, transmitting the legacy of one’s self. Omega, 56(4), 313-329.

Hunter, E. G., & Rowles, G. D. (2005). Leaving a legacy: Toward a typology. Journal of Aging Studies, 19, 327–347.

Kübler Ross (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Scribner Classics.

Newton, N., Herr, J., Pollack, J., & McAdams, D. (2013). Selfless or Selfish? Generativity and Narcissism as Components of Legacy. Journal Of Adult Development, 21(1), 59-68.

Rubinstein, R. (1996). Childlessness, legacy, and generativity. Generations, 20(3), 58.

Sligte, D., Nijstad, B., & De Dreu, C. (2013). Leaving a Legacy Neutralizes Negative Effects of Death Anxiety on Creativity. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(9), 1152-1163.

Wexler, G., & Long, L. (2009). Lifetimes and Legacies: Mortality, Immortality, and the Needs of Aging and Dying Donors. The American Archivist, (2). 478.

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi | Flow

Flow | Dr. Csikszentmihalyi

Flow is a common word in the vernacular of anyone studying positive psychology. Intuitively most people get the general concept. A good working definition is having the feeling of fusion with an on-going activity, effortlessly and fluidly (offered by Dr. Bloch in her article Flow: Beyond Fluidity and Rigidity. A Phenomenological Investigation). Most people believe they have an abundance of Flow in their life when in reality it is a fairly difficult state to obtain. We get in our own way with regards to Flow simply because most feel the need to be in complete command of a situation.

The Godfather of Flow, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, defined flow in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience as the “experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement,” and “a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation” in anything we love doing.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi stumbled upon Flow in his youth. As a child growing up in Hungary Mihaly saw how many in Hungarian society were affected by war, many devastated because of the loss of their social status and/or finances. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi wanted to avoid the perils of this negativity and see if he could find meaning outside the confines of what was happening around him. In his own words, he wanted to, “live life as a work of art, rather than as a chaotic response to external events.”

He was intrigued and studied why some people did not lose their sense of self during this time, even after losing everything, where as others were devastated and were not able to reclaim their sense of worth. He discovered that people found pleasure in very profoundly different ways. As Csikszentmihalyi matured he continued to be fascinated by this and conducted hundreds of interviews with people from different walks of life including athletes, artists and CEOs to discover what compelled their passions.

He continued to find people define this state very differently but discovered a common theme, that people that really enjoy internal pleasures described enjoying those pleases like being in a trance. He began to develop a concept of Flow, that of being an extremely productive and fulfilling state where one forgets about their self and is extremely focused at the task at hand.

He observed that people experiencing flow do not notice fear, they do not really keep a mental record of what they are doing and actions are instinctual. That is not to say that you can find Flow in routine tasks, on the contrary the mundane has been shown to hinder flow because the lack of challenge does not provide the right stimulus.

So what does Flow mean (in the mind of Dr. Csikszentmihalyi):

  1. Concentration – being completely involved and focused
  2. Elation
  3. Inner clarity – clearly seeing tasks and executing them flawlessly
  4. Confidence
  5. Serenity – complete self-trust and lack of fear
  6. Timeliness – absorbed in the Now
  7. Intrinsic motivation – doing for the sake of doing

As I previously discussed achieving flow cannot be found in the mundane, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi believes there needs to be balance between skill and challenge. It is the sweet spot between arousal and control. Too much arousal and you might get anxious about the outcome, too much familiarity and control and boredom may get the best of you. Find the balance between the two and you are able to fully engage yourself in a desirable state.

Happiness is a Choice

I know it is a cliché: happiness is a choice; but it’s a cliché backed by empirical evidence. In practice though, it isn’t always that easy. Speaking from my own experience it takes a lot of work to engage in the type of self-awareness needed to alter one’s mood by simply switching focus. But hear me out and you might be whistling a happier tune by the time you finish reading this…

While researching positive psychology I have seen the studies that point to a genetic predisposition to happiness. Some researchers in psychology argue that we inherit our ability to be happy and that the level to which we are able to derive satisfaction in life is significantly influenced by our genetic make-up. However, in the study Long-Running German Panel Survey Shows That Personal and Economic Choices, Not Just Genes, Matter for Happiness researchers observed 60,000 Germans over the span of 25 years, and found that levels of individual happiness actually correlated stronger with setting goals and personal choice and less on genetic factors.

In the long-term, those who value family and personal relationships seem to be happier than those who are focused on material success and/or career advancement, which strengthens the argument about happiness as a choice because personal relationships are an area where we have much better control over external outcomes. For example, we can decide to be a good friend (or not), but we cannot decide to force our company to give us a promotion.

Happiness is a Choice

So how is happiness affected based on personal choice? There are many easy ways we can influence our own behavior that will help improve your mood. One way we can increase happiness is by making a conscious effort to focus on the positive attributes of any given situation. Deciding what to focus on in any given circumstance is a personal choice, and one of the most straightforward ways to increase happiness. There are more subtle ways as well… For instance, making an effort to keep a mild and friendly pitch when we talk has shown to increase mood. In the study Speech Pitch Frequency as an Emotional State Indicator, evidence suggests that the pitch and tone of our voice reflect and affect our emotional state. Gentler tones will also maintain low stress levels in the people around us. Another example is, accordingly to the brief report Keep Smiling: Enduring Effect of Facial Expressions and Postures on Emotional Experience and Memory, the simple act of choosing to smile. Simply making an effort to smile more has been shown to have a positive effect on our well-being in numerous ways and happiness is one of them.

In short, current scientific findings are challenging that happiness is somehow outside of our control. Simply being cognizant that you have power over your emotional state, and coming to the realization that you can actively decide how you are effected by certain life events, can help increase your overall happiness in very profound ways. If you have any tactics that work for you, please share them in the comments below.

Laugh and Smile!

Smiling and laughing are physical manifestations of being happy. One of the easiest short cuts to tricking the mind out of a bad mood is to find reasons to smile and laugh.

Why smile? Well, why not? While stress has been linked to a lot of health issues, smiling, laughing and being positive is associated with longevity, positivism and other health benefits that promote wellness in both our minds and bodies.

Laugh and Smile!

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows the benefits of smiling and laughing. For one, laughter lets the body discharge endorphins (a neurological biochemical that naturally alleviates stress). When we are tense or anxious our pulse rate goes up, our body heat rises, and our nervous system is hyperactive; it is difficult to perform optimally in this state. On the other hand, smiling and laughing allows us to relax, and induces a feeling of happiness (surprisingly it works even if you aren’t really happy) thus removing stress. Laughing moderates the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, a study has shown that laughing boosts our immune system by increasing the number of immune cells and antibodies we have (thus developing the body’s resistance to stress, illness and disease).

Intuitively, smiling also gives us a greater feeling of harmony with our environment. That is because smiling can affect the way people see us — as well as having a positive natural effect on other people’s mood too. Outside of the proven benefits of performance, smiling is often a signal of your friendliness, approachability and good character. So smile, charm the world, while reaping its health benefits and performing better!

Play to Your Strengths

Play to Your Strengths

As humans, most of us are inclined to spend more time dwelling on our negative attributes, and trying to improve upon them, than we are developing our inherent strengths. We learn this bad habit at an early age… a child is deficient in math but great at writing? Great, get them a math tutor to improve the deficiency and keep them at pace with their writing proficiencies. In adolescents this makes sense because of the need of self-discovery, developing learning styles, and foundational growth. However, once we have matured this reasoning can lead to frustration because sometimes our efforts become futile. If we have mastered something close to the peak of our potential in a particular area, then further training makes little sense. This ties in with my post Applying the Pareto Principle. When a maximum effort will only result in smaller and smaller increments of improvement for a skill that is not a core competency for fulfilling a particular goal, then wouldn’t your efforts be better served elsewhere? Peak performers on the other hand spend time developing their core strengths …and with any remaining time only try to correct their most dominant weaknesses.

The attributes of a particular “strength” are usually defined by the methodology used to evaluate a particular set of strengths. My personal preference is the VIA Strengths defined by Martin Segliman (due to my affinity for Positive Psychology), but there are others out there such as Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0.

Experts are starting to agree, that developing and improving upon existing strengths is a better use of time than trying to improve upon weaknesses. For another person’s take on strengths and weaknesses read the HBS article Stop Worrying about Your Weaknesses by Peter Bergman.