Thursday, January 22, 2015

Falling in Love with Anyone

The New York Times' "Modern Love" column of January 9, "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This," garnered more than 5.2 million online visits, 365,000 "Shares" on Facebook, and 745 comments. A reader even set up the fall-in-love procedure as a game on a website. People are desperate for love.

Writer Mandy Len Catron successfully tried "a Cupid-like technique to help two strangers fall in love," a series of 36 personal questions a pair asks each other, developed two decades ago by psychologist Arthur Aron. The process culminates in a four-minute eyeball-to eyeball stare-down. After a 45-minute interchange and gazing through the windows of the soul, the couple feels in sync.

Mandy Len Catron's take-away lesson: By building closeness through introspective communication, "it's possible--simple, even--to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive."

If it's "simple, even" to create trust and intimacy, wouldn't it be even simpler to rekindle the same feelings, once entrenched and now faded? To re-fall in love, and avoid divorce?

Two married people drifting apart emotionally could take only a single hour answering 36 questions to steer themselves back together. With such an easy formula for closeness, why wouldn't every estranged couple give it a try? Revealing feelings is a lot less traumatic than moving out; a lot less costly than court; a lot less acrimonious than deciding custody.

Here's why not: willingness. Or lack thereof.

Willingness is a choice, of course. And certainly people have justifiable reasons to refuse. Justifiable, but often sadly selfish.

Perhaps withdrawing is the culmination of years of small slights, hurting comments or unfair expectations. And certainly there are times when a spouse feels so betrayed she can't bear the offender. (Divorce is indeed necessary in some cases.) But even after resentment and anger replace a chunk of original affection, a couple can still decide to set the bad stuff aside in order to choose closeness.

But few people now learn to put others ahead of themselves. The concept of self-sacrifice has abysmally low ratings.

Still, most who enter marriage claim intentions of "forever," and want the relationship to work (as long as it satisfies). A functioning, pleasurable, life-enhancing relationship for both partners is the prize--but it requires willingness to put others ahead of yourself.

Stubbornness is selfishness--and keeps too many partners from deciding to give in to the other. The 36 questions shift the focus. How can you stay estranged when you're telling your partner personal insights like your secret hunch about how you'll die? About why you haven't accomplished what you've dreamed of doing? About your feelings regarding your mother?

In the exercise, moving from your deepest interior life into questions focusing on the other cements the connection. "If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know." The process climaxes with question 36: "Share a personal problem and ask your partner's advice on how he or she might handle it. Also ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen."

Why are these 36 questions so effective at producing love between strangers (and non-strangers, too)? Because embedded in the questioning is a course on communicating and bonding. The questions require looking inward about memories, emotions and desires (ie one's past, present and future).

They require forming these thoughts into cogent words, phrases and paragraphs--expressing one's interior--and checking to see that the receiver understood. This involves offering oneself to the other, becoming vulnerable; when both do this they form a relationship combining the two individuals.

The entire process rests on a bond and a goal--a commitment (bond) to work together to connect, "to fall in love with anyone" (goal).

That's marriage: A bond that supersedes a declaration, and an ongoing goal. Everyone knows how tough it is to undo the legal contract; neglect alone can dissolve the emotional bond. But few articulate that the goal, called by the 36 questions game "falling in love with anyone," must be pursued by daily choices placing the spouse, and the relationship, first.

The goal of marriage is continuing to fall in love, every day, every moment, with "anyone," the person you've got sitting in front of you, the person you may know better than all others, and still not yet know because he changes all the time. Understanding those changes brings closeness, the substance of love, and all you have to do is choose to keep asking the questions. And gazing into each others' eyes.

(Dedicated to the love of my life, as we celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary January 27, 2015.)  The 36 questions can be found here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

My Husband's a Movie Critic. Here's why I skip 90% of screenings.

"The Artist" is a film I saw...and loved.
Though my husband hosted Sneak Previews, the movie review show on PBS, for twelve years, and has continued to review new movies as a national radio talk-show host for the last 18 years, I seldom go with him to screenings.

Here's why: I don't want anything in my head with violence, suspense or slapstick. If I go to a movie, I want it to be fun, interesting and/or uplifting. You don't need violence, suspense or slapstick for that.

Many people call me a wimp. A whuss. A ridiculous extremist. Let me try to convince you that I'm right to be so picky.

First, violence. I don't like to see people get hurt. I know it's not real, but animation, camera work, "foley" sound and special effects put us in the middle of the gore and mayhem. When I see an image, I don't just forget it. I wince. My brain has taken an indelible snapshot of the scene with its literally sickening, graphic components. Sickening: even in real life, I'm squeamish, and in real life in America, you don't typically see such disgustingly horrible mutilations and murders as screenwriters devise. There is far too much placed before my eyes from the real world without my consent; why would I want to add even more bloodshed to fuel my recollections?

There's been way too much research on the impact of violence on children, and more than necessary on the influence of violence on adults. After the first fifty studies, we should have understood that images, plot lines and even incidental content all change us. Watching violence makes kids more aggressive, and even if it doesn't change actual behavior, it influences how they perceive the world (more menacingly). Please read Michael Medved's classic book Hollywood Vs. America.

He makes the unassailable point that advertisers spend tons of money for sixty seconds of content, which they'd definitely save if they thought their commercials didn't impact anyone. Certainly the TV shows surrounding those commercials sink into our consciousness just as much as the ads. In movie theaters, with all distractions removed and images oh, thirty times life-size, doesn't it make sense that blood spattering across your field of view, with severed limbs or mangled bodies creates an impression that's, well, larger-than-life?

I know: you watched all that stuff and you came out okay. In fact, you keep watching that stuff, and you're a virtuous model citizen who sleeps just fine. Well, you may have a clean slate and your heart might melt at LOL Cats, but this doesn't mean you're unscathed. Desensitization to cruelty and others' suffering, proven in scads of those over-funded studies as an outcome of watching violence, may not express itself overtly or even often, but still offers subtle influences to personality.

Does seeing violence really help you in any way? You can say that it's necessary when telling some stories; that the plot couldn't move forward without it. You could say it, but it's not so. Remember Alfred Hitchcock's movies? He worked during times of strictly imposed standards of the Motion Picture Production Code (called the Hays Code after its champion Will H. Hays, the first president of the Motion Picture Association of America). Yet he was able to clearly communicate horrifying events, causing plenty of nightmares in viewers, without oozing blood, graphic hackings or shocking dismemberment.

And frankly, I don't want to wrap my brain around a story with even implied violence. OK, this may be too wimpy for most, but in my limited hours on earth, I'd rather use my brain cells for less wrenching focus. As a psychologist, I cultivate empathy; if I have any for a fictional screen character--which is what all good writers strive for--then I'll still experience some degree of anguish or discomfort to see the protagonist suffer. There is enough real suffering in the world; for that I reserve my heartfelt caring and distress.

So, I eschew viewing violence. I'll never see an Alfred Hitchcock film, though, due to my second criterion: no suspense.

Well, little suspense. Even the most lighthearted films have some sort of hurdle or obstacle or conflict, and of course these create some level of suspense. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, there's some problem (causing suspense) but it's overcome and, well, Sleepless in Seattle. You've Got Mail. When Harry Met Sally. Biggest RomCom grosser of all time? My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Why refuse movie suspense? Because suspense is imposed stress. Life is stressful enough, see my note re suffering, above. Some people find tension invigorating. I do, but only self-imposed stress, like when I'm cooking big meals for guests for the Jewish Sabbath and I've got only a few minutes until it begins but three dishes left to finish.

That's blissful stress. I set it up that way; when I do get everything done under the wire, I'm flying into Shabbat. Feelin' good! Feelin' fine! Feelin' in control! If I miss the deadline and have to turn off the oven with the challah bread still baking inside, well, okay, it's my own fail, and I'm still pumped from the exercise of trying. That's why God made freezers--to keep bread ready for when yours isn't quite done on time.

But somebody else imposing unpredictable stress? No thank you. Even if I've begged for the spoiler, and found out the plot turns out fine, I don't want a movie manipulating my emotions like that.

And most of the time, I don't know what will happen, except that the music is getting faster with lots of thumping, and you see the car careening with a very upset driver. That's when I leave the room and don't finish the movie. If I made a poor choice and am stuck inside a dark theater, that's when I duck under my jacket, put my fingers in my ears and start humming. I never have to worry about disturbing my neighbors because that thumping about-to-crash music gets awfully loud.
The Three Stooges. Hilarious?

No, a script-writer's imposed stress is not for me. That brings me to the final movie device I avoid: slapstick.

I don't find people doing stupid things, usually getting injured doing them, funny. The Three Stooges were prime offenders. The cruelty poking eyes, flipping brooms and crowding doorways appalled me as a kid watching the black-and-white TV show. How many pies were pushed onto those guys' faces? What did they have against pie? I did not laugh; I cringed. This does not mean I am humorless, and in fact, I'm the first to laugh at even fairly lame jokes. I just don't laugh at slapstick, because it's always at someone's expense.

As intimated earlier, that leaves me with romantic comedies. Or unromantic comedies. Or interesting stories that aren't even funny, but end up happy (or at least not sad). I prefer exiting a movie more upbeat than when I entered. I prefer being entertained, perhaps with good singing and dancing, as offered in most musicals. But if the show is called "dark" (Into the Woods) or a tragedy (the characters you care about die) or a suspense thriller (duh), there's no chance I'll enjoy it.

Like most people, before taking the hour-and-a-half for the movie plus the extra hour-and-a-half for transportation and mandatory waiting for the show, I check out the film's trailer online. When I saw the one for The Theory of Everything (2014), about handicapped scientist Stephen Hawking, it appeared the film was the story of a couple in love fighting together to overcome a debilitating disease. Looked romantic, but it bothered me to see Hawking succumbing to illness, so I skipped the screening. My husband returned saying that the trailer was misleading--the film was really about the Hawkings' divorce. He said it depicted each's affairs and their split. Rather than an uplifting story of love trumping physical limitation, it apparently told of love's demise.  No matter how well acted or beautifully shot a film, if its story is one of coming apart, betrayal and sadness, it's not for me.

Most people love sharing their responses to movies, and who better to do that with than a real movie critic? If I'm standing by when friends start talking to my husband, I listen politely but only rarely want to see the movie discussed. I've got far too much to accomplish, experience, and heck, just maintain (ie housework) to indiscriminately enter some screenwriter's made-up world. I admire excellent artistry but not at the risk of my sensibilities.

I do enjoy many films, though. The Artist, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012, is at the top of my list. Why? It was a film in which every character was likeable, yet it told a complex story with a message--and even did it silently, in black-and-white. Recently, I liked Chef, this year's Jon Favreau film, and while we're on the subject of food, Julie and Julia (2009) and The Hundred Foot Journey (2014), were delightful films that met all my criteria.

Which brings me to the final point. Most movies lower the quality of discourse, and drag me into milieus and neighborhoods I'd rather avoid. The ones I appreciate contribute to my enjoyment of the world. I am blessed with a fabulous, exciting life, and while I love broadening it with travel and non-fiction and beautiful images and music and especially study and learning, I want to restrict the tainting influences in our culture as much as possible. So, I'd rather hear a lecture on Jewish text than a movie with profanity. I'd rather even read the newspaper than "experience" a character's grimy, drug-centered downfall. Yes, that limits my experiences to half of the possibilities of life, for surely there is as much negative in the world as positive. But one can be aware of the negative but choose the positive. One can read about criminals and choose admirable people as friends.

So don't expect to see me with my husband at screenings. I'll remain blissfully naive of the latest box-office smash. And as free as possible from gruesome images and soul-wrenching stories, hoping to make the most of this awesome existence.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Stark contrast in reactions to killings related to race/ethnicity: "Burn this B---- Down," vs. this Israeli daughter

Louis Head yelling "Burn This B---- down!" with Lesley McSpadden
Louis Head, who identifies as deceased Ferguson, Missouri 18-year-old Michael Brown's stepfather, climbed up on a pedestal wearing an "I am Michael Brown" t-shirt to comfort his partner, Lesley McSpadden, Brown's mother. The Grand Jury declined to prosecute police officer Darren Wilson, and the town was in flames before him, "Season's Greetings" spelled in lights over the street.

He becomes agitated, shouting "Burn this mother------ down!" and repeating "Burn this b---- down!" before violence erupts.

Soon thereafter, family attorney Benjamin Crump shared a podium with Rev. Al Sharpton, currently the subject of exposes in the New York Times alleging tax irregularities (at the least). The press conference was in response to viral posting of videos showing the inciteful screams by Ms. McSpadden and especially those of Mr. Head. Mr. Crump explained that the "burn this b----down" exhortation was "born out of desperation and frustration after watching the decision that the killer of an unarmed child would not be brought to justice." 

I beg to differ: Officer Wilson was 'brought to justice" by the evaluation of the Grand Jury, which determined that he should not be charged.

The reaction in Ferguson to the Grand Jury's decision was characterized this way by CNN: "A row of businesses on West Florissant Avenue, a major thoroughfare in the St. Louis suburb, was engulfed in flames Monday night. Police cars and vehicles at a nearby dealership were
Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, reacts to Grand Jury
turned into fireballs. There were so many blazes that firefighters couldn't reach every one."

I live in Seattle, where protesters blocked the I-5 freeway, exploded a large firework in front of police, and threw cans and bottles. Roosevelt High School, ranked by US News as 351 among the nation's top high schools with a 9% black student body, experienced a student walk-out to a rally on the University of Washington campus.

In other cities, law enforcement had its hands full containing responses. The central, underlying issue is whether police target  blacks and treat them unfairly because of their race.

Halfway around the world, it is certain that Jews have been targeted and treated unfairly because of their "race." This week four worshipers in prayer at synagogue, and a policeman coming to their aid in the Har Nof suburb of Jerusalem were cruelly hacked and stabbed to death. Eight were wounded. The deceased left a total of 24 children fatherless. Thousands attended the funeral later that day of Rabbi Moshe Twersky; his eldest son said his only consolation was that his father died in prayer.

Posted by many of my friends on Facebook is a link to an ad-hoc video by Michal Levine, the daughter of slain Rabbi Kalman Zeev Levine, in which she reacts to losing her father just a few
Michal Levine, reflecting on the murder of her father
days ago. In calm, deliberate words, she explains that her father would want his death to bring greater unity, and inspire others to see the good in what they have. She concludes movingly:

“He died because he was a Jew, without harming anyone, and it’s painful, but yet, every person we still see as good. We leave his physical body with pain, but not with any anger with anyone. And that is the message we want to be known.”

I've heard some say the reaction to the Ferguson Grand Jury announcement is really not about that one case, but anger rooted in persecution since and including slavery. President Obama claims anger "is understandable" here, but shouldn't be cause for violence or destruction. To be fair, Michael Brown's father, quoted in Pres. Obama's remarks before the Grand Jury announcement last night, is measured: "“Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”

Excellent, but then we see the footage of Lesley McSpadden and Louis Head actually reacting after the decision is delivered. Ms. McSpadden visually contradicts her former partner's admonition by wearing a knit cap displaying "#JFMS," for "justice for my son." (The fashionably inclined can select from five t-shirt offerings on the craft-site Etsy alone, most with a "hands up, Don't Shoot" logo.)

By contrast, the footage shown after the massacre in the Jerusalem synagogue featured
Reuters photo of Palestinians celebrating Har Nof massacre with sweets
Arabs in Gaza celebrating by sharing sweets, as well as blood-spattered Jewish ritual items. We can't judge much based on what the press chooses to show us, and I consider the Ferguson announcement an epic fail by our own government, who should have summoned media to discuss and thereby diffuse feelings about the Michael Brown case in the three months since it occurred. Perhaps if instead of a huge drum-roll in the several days before the announcement, we'd heard more about the info that led to the dismissal--to prepare everyone--there would have been less expectation of violence to fulfill.

Case in point: my local talk station yesterday at every commercial break used their most deep-voiced announcer (the one whose inflections imply gravity) to assure listeners that when the announcement comes, they'd suspend all programming to carry it live. The question arises: do news-sites cover or create a national climate?  Then again, do we expect news gatherers competing for ratings to hold back from exploiting an opportunity to enlarge a big story? Even in the interest of minimizing possible injury and destruction?

But you can't blame individuals' behavior choices on media. And you can't excuse Head and McSpadden's profanity-laced incitement by saying they were upset.

People can end up doing really destructive things when they're pumped up, like Becca Campbell, 26 of St. Louis, who brandished a pistol in the car while her boyfriend drove. "I'm ready for Ferguson," she said, waving the gun so wildly her boyfriend rear-ended another car. The gun went off, shooting her in the head and killing her.

Each person is responsible for his own actions, and the Grand Jury determined that was the case for Michael Brown, too. If he'd complied when Officer Wilson asked him to walk on the sidewalk instead of the middle of the street, he'd likely be alive, though probably prosecuted for the convenience store robbery.

Not so for the four slain worshipers in Jerusalem, whose behavior was not what caused their demise. And yet, the response from resident Jews surrounded by potential enemies is one of grief grounded in serenity, confidence in One grander and more just.

So here we have two stories of race-ethnicity with similar sad events but very different responses. "Burning the b---- down" solves nothing and salves little, while withholding anger in favor of communication and trust in God allows life to go on.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Near-Miss Accident on the Freeway; and a Coincidental Psalm

This is NOT the crashed car from my story (just found it online)
I just heard my husband speak on his radio show  to his millions of listeners about a near-miss accident we experienced last night that left us quaking from shock and immediately grateful to God.

We were traveling on the freeway to meet out daughter for dinner at our local kosher Chinese restaurant when out of nowhere, a sports car speeds up from behind in the lane on our right, inserts itself in the space between us and the car ahead of us, keeps on veering left into the next lane over--that was occupied by a car that threw on its brakes. He swerves back in front of us and through to the right, and starts spinning just in front of a large semi-trailer truck that slammed on its brakes. The sports car kept on spinning, out of control, crossing a further-right exit lane and then into the concrete wall. Miraculously, he did not strike a car, nor did a car strike him, and though he'd crashed into the wall, the sports car stopped upright and appeared damaged on only one side at the rear.

This was a near-miss on at least five counts; about four seconds that felt like slow-motion eternity, watching the sports car place itself dangerously close to three fast-moving vehicles (ourselves twice) and twirl around so many times to the squeal of tires and brakes.

The first thought is to thank God for sparing us--and the others who might have had impacts. It was dark and impossible to see, but if the offending driver wore a seat belt, it was likely even he was safe. Then again, would someone taking such reckless chances wear a seat belt? We were on the freeway and could not know the outcome.

The incident has entered my thoughts often today--and even more given a most peculiar coincidence. I happen to subscribe to a Psalm-a-day group of 200 women who hope to uplift ourselves and our families. Today in my email in-box was Psalm 107, "describing people rescued from a life-threatening situation." The commentary lays out the types of situations that require special thanks to God for His providence, and concludes with the following:
"The refrain that repeats itself numerous times throughout this chapter admonishes people who have experienced salvation, 'They shall give thanks to God for His kindness, and speak of His wonders to people.' ...One who has been rescued from trouble is thus obliged to not only express his gratitude, but to do so in a public fashion, thereby helping to glorify God throughout the world."
A meaningful coincidence after my husband's on-air story, the way I see it. By the way, the Psalm begins with a phrase common in Jewish liturgy. Phonetically in Hebrew, it's  "Hodu Adonoy, ki tov, ki l'olam chasdo," a sentiment appropriate as we approach Thanksgiving: "Give thanks to God who is good, for His kindness endures forever."

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Eeww--A bug bites while you sleep, and its poop gives you parasites

 You may know that recently I wrote about a debilitating mosquito-borne disease sweeping the Americas that leaves a fifth of its victims with ongoing joint dysfunction. Chikingunya has affected 500,000 Dominicans and thousands of others in the Caribbean, and made it to Florida this summer. The virus swept through my handy-man's family and friends in El Salvador, and seeing his distress has caused us all pain.

I got a response to my post from my new daughter-in-law who's in nursing school: "Did you hear about the other disease that's spreading around the US, caused by insects that bite your face while you sleep??"

Bite your face while you sleep? Get ready: "Chagas" is even worse than chikingunya (though easier to pronounce).

Blood-suckers called "kissing [or 'assassin'] bugs" (triatomine) take their snack and leave their parasite-infested poop as a souvenir. Unknowingly, you touch it and spread it into your own system by nudging a bit into the puncture, or touching your eye or mouth. 

Then, you've got it for life--and maybe death.

There are two phases of infection. In the first, "acute" phase, you might get symptoms that could be identified as something else: "fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting," says RT news. Swelling around the eye near the infection site ("Romana's sign)  is another clue to chagas. The Centers for Disease Control adds, "Rarely, acute infection may result in severe inflammation of the heart muscle or the brain and lining around the brain." Or, this first phase could produce no symptoms at all.

"Megacolon" caused by Chagas
It's the second phase that can be especially deadly, and it can happen over a period of years or decades. According to Baylor College of Medicine researcher Melissa Nolan Garcia, 41% of Texas blood donors who tested positive for the parasite (and that was 1 per 6,500 blood donors) had "cardiomyopathy," which includes a host of heart problems that can lead to death. Also common are gastrointestinal problems (megadisease) that can make esophagus, stomach or colon--enormous.

 As if that's not bad enough, no treatments eliminate the parasites. A couple of drugs (benznidazole [Rochagan, Ragonil] and nifurtimox [Lampit]) are often used, but their effectiveness is hit-or-miss and the only place you can get them in the US is from the Centers for Disease Control. I've seen comments that baking soda on the bite, and consumed in water, is helpful, but anecdotal reports won't cut it. Unfortunately, a pregnant woman can pass the parasite to her baby. Most people living with T. cruzi don't even know it--or what it's doing to them. And yet world-wide, ten million people are living with it!

So far, the CDC says "kissing bugs" inhabit only the southern United States, and those suffering with chagas further north contracted it through travel from infected regions.

 Given its designation as a "silent killer" because victims can be asymptomatic until their conditions are dire, I certainly hope this scourge receives more attention. It's the opposite of Sleeping Beauty, whose princely kiss revives her from a deathly rest--a bug that brings ultimate death by its night-time kiss while you sleep. People are getting so scared that Snopes took it on and reported it's true--there's indeed something to fear. Sweet dreams!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Positive Thinking--a fraud or a solution?

I'm a psychologist who loves positive thinking. I was raised with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking." I'm a fan of Martin Seligman's "learned optimism" approach, that uses cognitive therapy to turn around negative thinking that can inhibit performance and well-being. Dr. Seligman's "Positive Psychology" modality expanded the focus of psychology from pathology and pain, to the complete spectrum of emotions, from ecstatic to inconsolable.

So the article in the NY Times last week by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen headlined "The Problem with Positive Thinking," grabbed my interest. Over two decades, the writer conducted scads of studies showing that focusing on happy outcomes doesn't help them happen. She instead advocates "mental contrasting," by which individuals employ her "WOOP" technique to transform a Wish to a concrete Outcome, consider Obstacles in the way, and Plan means to overcome them.

Basically, she came up with a structure, a crutch, for deciding what to pursue, and to find the best way to achieve it. Very nice.

I haven't yet read Dr. Oettingen's new book, "Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation," so I'm really just going on what she wrote in her Times article and website, but it seems that she's confirmed the obvious: the more you do to make your desires practical and attainable, the more likely you are to actually attain them. (And the reverse--the more you realize what's unattainable, the more you'll eschew it.)

Does this negate the usefulness of Positive Thinking? Only if you define it as wishful dreaming, not as, well, confidence in a worked-out plan. Also, you've got to look at the goal--WOOP can help people reach tangible or measurable benchmarks. But it may be less helpful toward a goal of increasing well-being and becoming a happier person. Or enjoying life.

As an example, I'm going to present the case of someone I know; someone who was my close friend in high school. I was often frustrated when around her, and finally realized it was because of a personality trait I called "contrary-ness." Jen was not just a pessimist, but one who contradicted anyone else's optimism. If I said something upbeat, she'd tell me why I was wrong--subtly and cleverly. For Jen, in every silver lining, she'd see a cloud. It took me a long time to understand why, after a few hours with her, I always felt deflated, but with analysis that uncannily portended my future profession, I dissected our interchanges.

"What a gorgeous, sunshine-y day!" I'd exclaim upon emerging from class with Jen.
"The forecast is for rain tomorrow," she'd respond.

"You look great in that color," I'd chirp.
"Good, because when I weighed myself this morning, I'd gained five pounds."

"You got 98 on that test, and I only got 90," I'd remark.
"I should have gotten 100," she'd retort.

Some people don't even realize they're contrary. They're just raised to think that way. Or maybe it's their innate temperament, instilled genetically. I'll not forget the studies by Thomas, Chess and Birch on babies' innate temperaments, something researchers have now found are stable through childhood.

I'm not sure how Jen became contrary, but given who she was, how might she employ WOOT to overcome it?

Wish: "I wish I were happier."
Outcome desired: "For things to go my way." (Jen thought circumstances conspired against her.)
What are the obstacles to that? Given the examples above, Jen would say that the obstacles to what she preferred (rain, weighing less and perfect test score) were an unpredictable climate, a bad metabolism, and an overly-demanding teacher.
Jen's Plan: Stay inside, reading. Diet constantly. Complain to the teacher.

Do these three actions enhance Jen's goal of feeling happier?  YES. They increase her sense of control. Feeling in control improves her mood.

But is triumphing over the teacher, eschewing the outdoors and losing weight through dieting anything more than momentary success? Is a feeling of power in a situation happiness?

No, because there's a bigger obstacle to happiness for Jen and the many people I've observed who are generally negative: They want it that way. Remember, Jen is a contrarian.

Contrarians are most comfortable when they can be victims. Their underlying belief system dictates that they're NOT in control; that nefarious or just unfortunate circumstances are their lot in life, and that their lousy lot is what they deserve.

Now we come to the reason Dr. Spencer Johnson has earned millions of dollars and sold 26 million copies of "Who Moved My Cheese." This is a slim volume that tells the parable of two mice and two people in a maze, and the contrast between the Jen-types who remain stuck in the same place, and the natural WOOT-er, the "glass is half-full" personality who embraces what comes his way. The moral is to anticipate change and think about it positively. You've got to be the one who goes after new cheese, makes lemonade from lemons, or keeps digging to find the pony in the room full of poop.

Among personalities, there's a continuum of course, but with a bi-modal distribution. On the attitudinal graph of life, there are two bell curves, one hill for the positive thinkers, and another for the negatives. I hope you enjoy my hand-drawn representation, above.

When I was in graduate school at UCLA, a Public Health professor named Linda Beckman (who was on my doctoral dissertation committee) did a study comparing the happiness levels of older women who had no children with those who were mothers. I've been quoting this study for decades because it illustrates how crucial a positive attitude is in evaluating one's entire lifetime. The women surveyed all experienced adulthood before the women's movement, when motherhood largely defined women's identities. You'd think that parenthood or lack of children would determine those women's happiness with their lives, but another factor was much more important: attitude.

The women who had a positive attitude spoke glowingly about their children, or, if infertile, about the many opportunities they enjoyed and their fulfilling relationships with others' children. The contrarians blamed their children for their troubled lives, or, if infertile, blamed their lack of children for their unhappiness. Viewing the world through rose-colored glasses lets everything come up roses.

Positive thinking and Dr. Oettingen's WOOP process needn't be mutually exclusive, despite the title of her article. There's no "problem with positive thinking" unless the positive thinking has no basis. If seated in rationality and reality, positive thinking shapes your wishes, outcomes and plans to be bigger and better. With positive thinking, the obstacles may be there, but they become more surmountable.  Positive thinkers are the mice who move and adapt when the cheese moves, because they don't put their own obstacles in their paths and they're looking forward rather than backward.

Fantasizing on happy outcomes alone, as Dr. Oettingen asserts, won't motivate. As she notes, "positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we've already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it." But combined with WOOP-like analysis, positive thinking is motivating.

 I submit that two people with the same goals, same obstacles and same plans to overcome them are likely to have different outcomes if one's a contrarian or pessimist, and the other a confident optimist. Even if they seem to achieve the same thing on paper, one will end up happier about both the accomplishment and the process achieving it.

But there's another aspect to positive thinking that Dr. Oettingen seems to miss. And that is the moment. If you're an upbeat person, the moment is more often a pleasure, because you're seeing the good in it, the upside. Enjoying the present has its own worth. Maybe savoring the omelet you've made, talking on the phone to a loved one, or reminiscing over a photo album don't help you accomplish a specific goal or wish, but they can still enhance the quality of life, and weave positive feelings into the daily fabric. WOOP is helpful for accomplishing goals, I'm sure, but must every behavior advance a goal? Can an unplanned pleasure be productive?

Positive thinking as the overlay on life makes the classically productive parts--setting objectives, analyzing obstacles, making and executing a plan toward goals--as well as the less-defined parts pleasurable. Happiness, I maintain, is far broader than concrete achievements, and relates more to over-arching attitude than to the goal-driven motivational structure of "mental contrasting" that seems to fuel Dr. Oettingen's definition of success.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Feeling guilty surfing the web? Or is it okay to waste time?

You may not have noticed, but I haven't been posting much. Not that my brain has stopped, but there's a distance between coming up with a great idea and taking the time to write it. Especially when you feel that blogging is wasting time.

When I was a kid, my stay-at-home mom was very busy. Our house was always clean; she prepared a fresh dinner, complete with some kind of meat, vegetables, fruit and salad, every night, and we ate together as a family. My mom was painfully shy, so she didn't involve herself in many social organizations or spend time out with friends. My dad was her best (and almost only) friend, and we three kids her life, and so I  thought cruelly she "wasn't doing anything." In other words, wasting time.

When Los Angeles property taxes soared through the roof, our family was in danger of losing ours, since my dad's salary working in the state unemployment office just didn't cover it. This was before Prop 13, which rolled back taxes to 1975 levels and only allowed 2% increases if you stayed in the same home. Once enacted, property tax rates dropped 57%. Until 1978, though, my parents thought there were only two alternatives: sell the house we'd lived in since 1952, or my mom should get a job.

Working as a secretary for a wealthy businessman suddenly meant she was "doing something," bringing in money. I don't think she really liked dictation, filing and typing for the elderly gentleman, though she'd certainly worked as a secretary for many years before her children came along. But the real question arising from this story is: What activities constitute "doing something" with your time? Is vacuuming when next week it's just as dirty worthwhile?

If you don't "monetize" time to its potential, are you wasting time? Or is time enjoyed and savored a good enough outcome? Should pleasure be a byproduct rather than pursued?

All such conflicts boil down to an underlying tension in our culture between two opposing definitions of "right" and "good:" "Do your duty" versus "follow your heart."

Doing one's duty usually means first honoring principles, a set of rules you've accepted, or a contract you've made, all intangibles. You don't want to leave your cozy bed to go to class; so you choose somnolence or honor your matriculation. You don't want to face the project at work today, but it's your job, your commitment. You don't want to loan money to your destitute sister, but your moral code dictates that you help your family.

Conversely, "following your heart" means first honoring emotions or physical desires. You're comfy sleeping, so skip your early meeting. That co-worker is alluring, so you ignore that she's married. You think you'll be rejected, so pass up the job you could plausibly win if you'd just jump through the hoops. You hate paying the bills, so go eat a bag of Cheetos.

It's possible to simultaneously do your duty and follow your heart. When I observe my religious commandments hosting a Shabbat lunch, my heart thrills to gather interesting people enjoying my food. My two daughters are teachers, defined as chronically fatigued individuals with an indefatigable desire to improve the minds and lives of their charges.

 Most jobs and activities fit somewhere on the continuum between the opposing "doing your duty" and "following your heart." My husband loves hosting his radio show. But reading 5 newspapers every day hangs over him like an avalanche poised to bury him. He loves speaking to audiences who ponder arguments. But he hates traveling to get there.

The Jewish term for "following your heart" is to succumb to the "negative inclination, (yatzer ha ra)" the desire to eschew religious precepts for one's desires. It's the classic conflict between heaven and earth, spiritual and physical. "Do what you ought, not what you want." Why can't you "want" what you "ought"? The answer lies in setting priorities. When "ought" and "want" collide, the mature person forgoes pleasure for duty. When they can harmonize, both are lovely and shouldn't cause guilt.

Must get back to my project. Time's a wasting...(aarrgggghh!)