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There are decisions people make in life that they sorely regret, and for good reason. In the summer of 2021, the news is full of sad stories about people who decided not to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it was available to them and who then became ill with the virus. In some cases, the people expressing these regrets are speaking out from hospital beds, and even worse, do so before their death. The partners of these individuals also speak out with their own regrets for not having insisted that their loved ones “roll up their sleeves.”
These life-or-death situations are clearly ones in which people second guess a consequential decision. However, there are also less extreme conditions in which the thought flips through your mind that you wish you could take something back that you did or said. Perhaps you stubbed your toe while trying to reach for a shoe on an upper shelf of your closet. Although you hoped the pain would subside, you’re still in pain several days later. You replay in your head what you could have done differently to avoid hurting yourself and wish you could relive the scene, this time being more careful.
Counterfactual Thinking and Reactions to LossThis tendency to wish for a do-over is called “counterfactual thinking,” which the University of Groningen's Maarten Eisma and colleagues (2021) define as “mental simulations about how the present situation may have evolved differently.” As an example, the Dutch authors note that “Following the death a child in a car accident, a parent for instance might think: 'If only I had paid more attention while driving, then my son would still be alive.'” Indeed, previous research that Eisma et al. cite suggests that 48 percent of adults who lost a child or partner in an accident still replay if-only scenarios for as long as seven years after the loss, the latest data point in the study. Presumably, these regrets could persist for one's entire life.
In cases other than the death or severe illness of someone you know, it’s possible that counterfactual thinking can actually work toward your benefit. According to the “opportunity principle,” reflecting on a past event is “functional only if the situation can be changed or is likely to occur in the future.” You can’t change the death of a loved one, but you can be more careful when you tiptoe onto a stepstool.
In a downward counterfactual, as you replay the situation, you feel lucky that it wasn’t worse. Perhaps you think about that stubbed toe and are grateful that you didn’t damage yourself more seriously. A downward counterfactual could apply to you or someone else as you contemplate their having recovered from COVID-19 instead of succumbing to its ravaging effects on the body.
Rumination over what might have been could also be involved in those who become ill with COVID-19 as well as, theoretically, their partners who blame themselves for not being more proactive. The University of Groningen study provides the closest empirical counterpart, having tested the role of counterfactual thinking in bereaved individuals studied longitudinally over a 6- and 12-month period. Proposing that people who engage in this type of unproductive thought process would show higher levels of depression and grief, the Dutch authors compared an online sample of 59 bereaved adults who showed these tendencies with 59 bereaved adults who did not.
The Four Types of Counterfactual ThinkingEisma et al. proposed that because counterfactual thinking can occur in an upward or downward fashion, people experiencing bereavement might show different reactions to loss based on which they tended to use. Their measure of counterfactual thinking (the Counterfactual Thinking for Negative Events Scale; CTNES) therefore divided upward from downward thinking as well as self-referenced, other-referenced, or nonreferenced (not referring to anyone in particular). Think now about a negative event in your life, and see which process most closely applies to you by rating yourself on a 1 (never) to 5 (very often) scale:
Upward self-referent counterfactual thinking: As you relive the event, do you see yourself as the cause of the negative outcome? An example of an item from this scale is: “I think about how much better things would be if I had acted differently.”
Upward other-referent counterfactual thinking: In reliving the event, perhaps you don’t think about yourself and how you could have acted differently but about someone else who caused the event to happen. This process is indicated by the item: “If only other people had acted differently, the situation would have turned out better.”
Upward nonreferent counterfactual thinking: When the event replays in your mind, do you just wish it had turned out differently without thinking specifically about your role or the role of someone else? An item tapping this thought process is: “I think about how much better things could have been.”
Downward nonreferent counterfactual thinking: Consistent with the idea that a downward if-only thought would focus on the fact that things could have been worth, an item reflecting this process is: “I think about how much worse things could have been.”
The Role of Counterfactual Thinking After a LossThe Dutch authors used the response by their participants to a question about whether they were thinking about the death of a loved one or not to categorize loss and no-loss groups. The subsequent comparisons of the mental health of these groups were based on their responses to a questionnaire assessing prolonged grief symptoms (e.g. “I feel I have trouble accepting the death,” and symptoms of depression (“I still enjoy the things I used to enjoy”—reverse coded).
Turning to the results, the scores on prolonged grief and depression of the bereaved were highest for those who engaged in upward self-referenced counterfactual thinking. The findings, according to the authors, suggest that “mentally ‘undoing death,’ in particular in relation to actions oneself could (not) have taken, is a problematic coping strategy that perpetuates post-loss mental health problems.”
This process of “undoing” a negative event may, paradoxically, be adaptive at first. You could reinforce your sense of predictability about the world in terms of the principle of fairness. You could even, the authors suggest, feel some relief. However, over time, in view of an “immutable reality,” this process can lead to greater distress as you refuse to accept this unchangeable fact. It’s also possible that the self-blame involved in this form of if-only thinking means that you keep beating yourself up for doing, or not doing, something that could have prevented the loss.
What to Do If You’re an If-Only ThinkerAs you can see from these findings, the constant self-blame involved in upward self-referent counterfactual thinking will prevent you from either accepting the loss or forgiving yourself for your role in it. The implications of the study are that, in order to cope with a negative event, particularly one with serious and unchangeable consequences, you will recover better if you can turn off what you might call the “movie in your mind.” Constantly replaying the scene with a different ending than the one that occurred not only becomes nonproductive but can actually prolong your grief and sadness.
If you tend to engage in this type of second-guessing often, and not just in relation to major events, you can potentially benefit from what’s known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In this approach, as described by Celia Kennedy and colleagues from Australia’s University of Wollongong (2020), people are helped “to reduce their commitment to the counterfactual past, accept their current reality (i.e., accept uncomfortable emotions and tolerate uncertainty), connect with their values, and engage with their current life.”
As impossible as it might seem, even the events that you can’t reverse but wish you could can become a part of a different story you tell yourself. Rather than continuing to fantasize about life without that event, you can learn to tolerate your feelings of distress without taking that next step to self-blame and unproductive re-imagining. Although not specifically addressed in these articles about loss, you might also think about ways to turn your experience into an object lesson for someone else. For example, if you were in that unfortunate COVID-19 situation, you could join a pro-vaccine effort in your community so that others don’t suffer what you and your partner did.
To sum up, managing your feeling after a loss or negative event of some type requires that you turn off your second-guessing as you accept its reality. Moving toward more productive ways of thinking can help restore and promote your ability to achieve fulfillment even when that fulfillment becomes tested.
Are You Constantly Second-Guessing Yourself? | Psychology Today
Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, returning to a more normal routine can be nerve-wracking after all the
changes society has recently undergone. These four recommendations can help remove stress and give you the
confidence to re-enter the world and achieve your goals.
1. Be Aware of Your Mental Health
Rashes, fevers, and coughing are all indicators that there is something wrong with your physical health.
Unfortunately, mental health illnesses do not always have such obvious symptoms. Therefore, one of the best things
you can do for yourself is to pursue a healthy state of mind.
Reach out to SS Therapy and Consulting to find a therapist to help you overcome mental and emotional struggles,
such as depression, anxiety, co-parenting and low self-esteem. These professionals can help you work through
problems and even address issues you did not know existed. With their help, you can be more emotionally and
mentally capable to take on the challenges of life.
2. Take Control of Your Finances
If finances are a source of stress, you are not alone. One report states that 64% of adults find finances to be a stress-
causing factor in their lives. Getting your spending and saving under control is key to removing this tension.
Create or revisit your monthly budget. Use a spreadsheet or a template to list incomes and all monthly expenses.
This helps ensure you do not overspend and have money to pay your bills, purchase necessities, and put into
If you struggle to pay your bills each month, research different ways to save money, such as cutting back on
streaming services, consolidating auto and home insurance, and cooking more meals at home instead of going out.
Refinancing your house is another great option to save money. Doing this decreases the equity in your home;
thereby, allowing you a smaller monthly mortgage payment and freeing up cash for other expenses.
3. Pursue a New Career
Whether you dislike your current job or enjoy it but have a dream job in the back of your mind, changing careers can
make you a more confident, happy, and passionate person. If you are ready to switch professions, start networking
and looking online for job openings and requirements.
Depending on the prerequisites, you may have to go back to school. Even if it is not required, further education can
enhance your resume, give you more job prospects and simply provide a more thorough understanding of the line of
work. For example, a business degree may not be essential, but having one gives you knowledge applicable to many
different positions, such as management, accounting, or marketing.
If scheduling is a concern, many universities offer online programs, giving you much more flexibility than
traditional classrooms. You can often take courses at night or other off-hours, making it easier to fit them into your
4. Organize Your Home
While maintaining a tidy home can be challenging, there are numerous benefits to staying organized. As with a
budget, a clean home can reduce the amount of stress in your life because you know exactly where everything is.
Additionally, it saves you time and energy. Instead of spending 30 minutes searching for your keys, a dustpan, or
other household items, you can locate them right away. Plus, developing a system to keep your stuff organized gives
you a feeling of fulfillment.
While starting a new routine can be difficult, it does not have to be overwhelming. Follow these four
recommendations to give you confidence in all your upcoming ventures when re-entering the world.
Image via Pexels
Justin Bennett of healthyfit.info
I will be the first one to admit: I’m terrible at setting boundaries. If there is anything I have learned from the pandemic, it’s that I’m very good at allowing work to creep into every available moment and part of my life. Without the structured separation of work and home, I find it incredibly challenging to turn things off and to say no.
This isn’t new, for me, but it certainly has been magnified over the past year and a half. Part of that is my own inability to set and uphold boundaries. But there’s another aspect to boundaries that isn’t discussed as often: what happens when other people don’t help us to uphold them.
The reality is that boundary-setting is not a solo endeavor. Brené Brown, in her book Rising Strong, notes, “Setting boundaries means getting clear on what behaviors are okay and what’s not okay. Integrity is key to this commitment because it’s how we set those boundaries and ultimately hold ourselves and others accountable for respecting them” (p. 123). I love this definition. But what happens if I’m surrounded by people who simply don’t or won’t respect my boundaries?
As we start to bring people back to the office, for those of us who have been privileged to work at home all this time, it is critical that we look at what it means to uphold other people’s boundaries. And let’s be clear: Respecting people’s boundaries doesn’t mean that they get to opt out of work responsibilities or tasks they just don’t want to do. It may mean hard conversations about next steps for those who don’t want to return to the office, if that is going to be a requirement. But in my experience, engagement at work always starts with setting and communicating clear expectations on both organizational and interpersonal levels.
And this is a moment to reset some expectations. What does it mean to re-engage with people in a shared space? What commitments should be made to one another for how we will show up, do work, and honor one another’s truths? And why does it matter?
Why Do Boundaries Matter?One of the positive things to come from this pandemic is that a lot of people have started to ask deep, important questions about meaning and purpose and the value of work. In fact, over the past few weeks, the media has hit a bit of a frenzy over the idea that a whole bunch of people are quitting their jobs. NPR called it “the great resignation.” Business Insider describes it as “rage quitting.” Others have described it as a sign of a healthy economy. Perhaps. What is true is that a lot of people — many, but not exclusively, in the lowest wage positions — are reconsidering their relationship with work. And that isn’t something that any of us should dismiss or ignore.
Indeed, the recent Microsoft Work Trends Index survey found that while 61 percent of business leaders report that they are “thriving” at the moment, the exact same percentage of frontline workers say that they are “struggling” or merely “surviving.” Further, “One in five global survey respondents say their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance. Fifty-four percent feel overworked. Thirty-nine percent feel exhausted.” Anecdotally, from those I have talked to in recent months, I would put those numbers far, far higher.
Pre-COVID, Sarah Green Carmichael wrote in the Harvard Business Review about our tendency to “overwork,” and the very real health outcomes that result from it, “including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease.” And, despite what we might think, working long hours doesn’t result in greater productivity. In fact, it results in the opposite (and, notably, at least one study found that managers can’t tell the difference between those who worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to).
Many of us feel like we just spent the past year and a half working around the clock for seven days a week. Sometimes, you just do what you have to do. But that isn’t a productivity level that can be sustained. Managers should note that at the same moment that we seem to be coming out of this crisis, and talking about going back to the office, most of us are facing real feelings of burnout. What will that mean for our new return-to-office environments?
An Individual and Organizational ResponsibilityI have written here previously (again, pre-COVID) about the individual responsibility to define one’s own work-life balance in an “always on” world, and I believe the concept still holds true. We are each responsible for our own paths and the choices that we make. Sure, in an ideal world, our organizations and our managers would create supportive, caring cultures that see and uplift people as fully-formed humans, with needs and challenges and lives that impact the ways in which they show up to work each day.
We know that doesn’t happen. But instead of banging your head against the wall wondering why not, it’s on you as the owner of that fully-formed life to make the decisions that best serve you. Sometimes, that looks like leaving your role or your organization for one that better aligns with who you are. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean that I get to say I only will work from 10-2 when the expectation is that I work from 8-5. Choices have consequences, always. And if my life needs part-time work then I always have the ability to seek out a part-time job.
At the same time, we all can and must do a better job of upholding and respecting one another’s boundaries. Especially as we look towards returning to the office and being in community with one another again, and knowing that we are facing a crisis of employee burnout. Because, no matter how many boundaries I may set for myself, if you don’t respect them, if you bully or shame me for holding them, it doesn’t matter. Organizational culture is created by the people who exist within those organizations, by their words and their behaviors. Cultures aren’t created in a vacuum. And boundaries can only exist if everyone sees them and helps to maintain them. And that starts with the very top of the organization.
Questions to Uphold BoundariesIf you are a manager, don’t just tell people to take care of themselves, to find balance, and to set boundaries. Regularly ask questions of your people and yourself:
Negative societal consequencesThe dangerous societal consequences of growing public belief in conspiracy theories are well documented, from decreased civic engagement, to lower support for important issues such as global warming, to outright science denial, prejudice, and racism. In a recent study covering five different countries, we found that higher endorsement of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 (such as the idea that the virus was intentionally created in a military lab) is also strongly associated with lower intentions to get vaccinated and comply with public health guidelines.
Tracing digital footprintsAlthough tons of research has been conducted on why people believe in conspiracy theories, what research so far hasn't looked at is what language conspiracy theorists use online to entice their followers. Are there unique psycho-linguistic features in how actual conspiracy theorists express themselves online that we can discern from data? Most research uses surveys to ask the general public about the degree to which they endorse a particular conspiracy theory. Instead, we decided not to ask any questions and take our research online by observing the actual language that the top conspiracy theorists and their followers use on social media.
The language patterns of conspiracy theoristsIn our new study, we first identified the top conspiracy theorists on Twitter via a simple popularity metric: their number of followers. After all, more followers means greater influence. Even though it's public information, we can't divulge the identities of the conspiracy theorists in question for ethical reasons but you can find a table with redacted Twitter profiles here. Of course, we needed to be able to compare the language used by conspiracy theorists to another group. So our comparison or control group consisted of the top popular science influencers. This is interesting insofar we can now compare how two opposing narratives unfold on social media: science versus conspiracy. In total, we were able to scrape over 16,000 tweets from the influencers and over 160,000 tweets from a random sample of about 1,600 of their followers. Lots of data to look at!
So what were we looking for?
We used a psychological tool known as the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) dictionary. This dictionary was created by psychologist James Pannebaker who famously said "The words we use in daily life reflect who we are and the social relationships we are in." The dictionary associates words with particular psychological language themes. For example, a category called "cognitive processes" has subcategories that include "certainty" and associated words would include things like "truth." Similarly, the category "negative emotion" has subcategories called "anger" with associated words like "hate." Emotions such as "anxiety" would be associated with words like "nervous" and "afraid." The dictionary also clocks words that are about groups, for example, "we" and "us" versus "they" and "them." We used these categories to see if there are consistent patterns.
The figure below visualizes a snapshot of the social network of the top conspiracy theorists and popular science influencers and their respective following. You can already see that they form relatively polarized "echo chambers" with few linkages between the conspiracy and science influencers. Might they therefore also differ in the language that they use online?
The social network of the top conspiracy (red) and science (blue) influencers and their followers.
We found some notable differences. For example, as compared to scientists, conspiracy theorists scored much higher on their use of negative emotion, especially anger and anxiety, and this pattern was also present among their followers, especially around words that signal anxiety. Conspiracy theorists were not necessarily more likely to use "certain" or "causal" language than scientists but their followers were more focused on past events. Interestingly, conspiracy theorists and their followers were especially likely to focus on language themes related to power, death, and religion, as well as a focus on other groups.
This makes sense: Many conspiracy theories revolve around the death of prominent individuals from Princess Diana, Osama Bin Laden, and John F. Kennedy to rapper Tupac Shakur. Conspiracy theories also frequently involve plots among powerful elites such as Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and international organizations such as the World Health Organization and United Nations who are seen as part of a "New World Order." The main purpose of conspiracy theories is of course to spread anger and fear, especially about the motives of other groups in society, including ethnic minorities, who are often the target of conspiracy theories.
In the figure below, we show a word cloud visualizing the most commonly used nouns and adjectives for the top 10 conspiracy and science influencers. Bigger and bolder representation indicates that the words appeared more frequently in the text. There are clear differences between the two groups, whereas scientists focus on science and topics such as “people,” “time,” “future,” “space,” “world,” “good,” and “earth,” conspiracy theorists focus on “followers,” “trailer” (of conspiracy movies), “Trump,” “Infowars,” “Russia,” “UFOs,” and “report.”
In short, next time you have a conversation and you're lured into a theme of fear, anxiety, and narratives about death and powerful "other" groups, you might be dealing with a conspiracy theorist.
The Language of Conspiracy Theorists | Psychology Today
What children of divorce want most and need most is to maintain strong and healthy relationships with both of their parents. Children have an innate desire to love, and be loved, by their mother and father.
Some parents, however, for a variety of unhealthy reasons, become determined to make their children love them at the exclusion of the other parent. Parental alienation is the maneuvering or manipulation of a child by one parent (alienating parent) to fear, disrespect, and hate his or her other parent (rejected parent) in an effort to disrupt the child’s relationship with that parent. This can lead to long-term or even permanent estrangement of the child from the rejected parent. Parental alienation is unhealthy and traumatic for the child.
Research shows that parental alienation occurs in 11-15% of divorces involving children (Fidler and Bala, 2010). As such, it is a relatively frequent phenomenon that attorneys and judges must face.
Let us be clear from the outset: Reasonable estrangement due to a parent’s real problems is different from alienation. For example, it is reasonable for a child to not want to see a parent if that parent is an alcoholic who regularly drinks around the child. This is not alienation. This is a reasonable reaction by a concerned child.
Common Tactics of Parental Alienation
Parental alienation involves a set of maneuvers and behaviors by the alienating parent. These often include:
• Bad-mouthing the other parent
• Capitalizing on and exaggerating complaints by the child about the other parent
• Limiting phone calls, video calls, texts, and emails between the child and other parent
• Creating the narrative that the other parent is mean, inadequate, and/or dangerous
• Promulgating the belief that the child is a victim of the other parent and must be protected
• Threatening to withdraw affection from the child if the other parent is not rejected
• Belittling and limiting contact with the extended family members of the other parent
• Falsely accusing the other parent of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse of the child or of the alienating parent
Red Flags for Parental Alienation
It is often difficult to determine if parental alienation is occurring. It is perplexing because the maneuvers of alienation are often hidden and actively denied by the suspected parent. The child is often a pawn who is largely unaware of the inappropriateness and unhealthiness of the phenomenon.
There are a number of red flags for identifying the presence of parental alienation. These include:
• Extreme denigration of the rejected parent by the child
• Weak or inadequate reasons for the denigration by the child
• Absence of ambivalence and guilt in the child
• The rejected parent is seen as “all bad.”
• Total alignment with the alienating parent, who is seen as “all good.”
• Claims of “independent thinking” by the child and the alienating parent
• Child’s animosity is spread to extended family members, friends, and others of the rejected parent
Roadblocks in Identifying Parental Alienation
Being able to identify parental alienation in a family has frequent roadblocks. The alienating parent’s attorney often believes his or her client will stonewall the use of a psychological evaluation. The rejected parent’s attorney believes his or her client and does not even consider the possibility that he or she has real problems—and thus it is not alienation. The guardian ad litem (GAL) believes the child, because the child’s statements are powerful and compelling, and does not consider the possibility that parental alienation is lurking and operating behind the scenes.
Many attorneys and judges do not understand the phenomenon of parental alienation. Some deny its presence because it is not a DSM-5 diagnosis. Others turn a blind eye because it is difficult to prove in a court room. Others believe that parental alienation is overblown and exaggerated as a real problem.
Initial Steps to Take
Tackling a case of parental alienation requires having the right attorney. It calls for an attorney who is psychologically minded, verbal, aggressive, and focused on the child’s best interest. In a parental alienation case, there is no room for indecisiveness, lack of clarity, or passivity.
The rejected parent’s attorney should file a motion for a psychological evaluation for both parents and the child. Even if the motion is denied, the rejected parent should pursue a psychological evaluation so that the parental alienation can be exposed.
Documenting examples of the parental alienation is vital. Keeping text messages, emails, pictures, and recordings can help put together the narrative of the parental alienation.
Asking the alienating parent to stop certain maneuvers and behaviors is important. If you do not speak up and ask for change, it will appear that you are condoning the harmful and hurtful process. Put your requests for change in writing.
Parental alienation is a powerfully disruptive and pernicious phenomenon. It must be identified and exposed. It must be attacked and defeated when possible. It can be done.
How to Recognize Parental Alienation | Psychology Today
My husband and I have been in the process of purchasing a home. This new house will be an improvement from our previous dwelling in several ways. We'll finally have luxuries that were out of our reach in the past with greater square footage, an expansive yard for our children to explore, and a close-knit neighborhood, to list a few.
Yet, with all of the wonderful upgrades to look forward to, I have found myself ruminating on the fireplace we decided to go without. And the floorplan with just a little more room that we passed up. And the lot with a slighter bigger yard. I stopped for a moment and recognized that while my standard of living was about to improve, I was stuck on what I wasn't getting. What was going on and how could I get out of this destructive pattern?
Negativity BiasUnfortunately, we humans are susceptible to what psychologists call negativity bias. Our brains are wired to focus on the negative aspects of life compared to the positive. Of course, this bias served our early ancestors well when paying keen attention to risk and danger was a matter of life or death. This attunement kept them safe and thus more likely to pass this trait on to their posterity.
Loss AversionWe also experience loss aversion where we weigh losses nearly twice as much as gains. For example, if you were to lose $100, your pain would be as intense as the joy of finding $200. So while I was looking forward to a covered patio, would I be able to let go of the perks of my old house and neighborhood? Would our new house be enough of an upgrade to improve my level of happiness?
The Hedonic TreadmillLife events often affect well-being short term. Lottery winners are happier temporarily, then return to their previous levels.
The third strike against us is a constant battle with the hedonic treadmill. Psychologists have found that life events that change our level of happiness, typically only affect wellbeing short term. Lottery winners are happier temporarily, then return to their previous levels. Those who lose their job often feel initial sadness, but usually bounce back to their normal state.
There are some exceptions to the hedonic adaptation such as a chronic illness, which may have long-term effects on wellbeing, but many times we overestimate the effects of life events on our happiness. As Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman said,
People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.
Humans are notorious for both intensity and duration biases when it comes to predicting their emotional states. Intensity bias is predicting an emotional response that is larger than the actual response, such as students overestimating their immediate reaction to a poor test grade. Duration bias is overestimating how long an event will affect our emotional state. For example, football fans may overestimate how long the feeling of elation after a team victory will last.
Defending Against Happiness PitfallsHow then can we defend against negativity bias, loss aversion, and the hedonic treadmill? The first step is being aware of these pitfalls. Each time we find ourselves focusing on what we’re giving up, we can take a minute to appreciate the privileges that we do have. Practicing gratitude is one of the most underappreciated tools we have to defend against negativity. The more we engage in optimistic thinking, the more automatic it will become. Our brains are malleable and capable of creating new patterns that can help fend off unhelpful biases.
We can be mentally present during everyday pleasures as we savor a cup of coffee or pause to experience a breathtaking sunrise. As David Kessler said in his latest book, “Finding meaning is not extraordinary, it’s ordinary. It happens all the time, all over the world.”
Experiences often impact our happiness more than things. As psychologist Thomas Gilovich said, "We remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions." We can use our relationships, hobbies, and compassion to bolster happiness and stave off negativity. We can take time to share our new dining room table with a family in need. We can allow our paints and canvases to occasionally clutter up our space. We can use that fresh grass to toss a football around with our little ones.
We can use our relationships, hobbies, and compassion to bolster happiness and stave off negativity.
When I envision my upcoming house, I can focus on the unexceptional countertops, or I can envision them being used to break bread with a new family. I can contemplate on the empty corner where the fireplace should be, or I can imagine my children and their friends snuggled there, giggling through a silly book. I can feel the loss of choosing a relatively small lot of land, but that yard may be where I embrace a brokenhearted friend. I may not have the means for high-end furniture, but maybe that space will be used as a refuge for someone who’s just been rejected by their family.
I may want all the comfort material goods can give, but it is my relationships with others that give them meaning. There is no purpose to a living space without life.
'My Life Is Improving, Why Am I Not Happier?' | Psychology Today
There are many ordinary situations in life that can trigger the fear that something bad is about to happen. Perhaps you’re about to sit down at the computer and take a look at your online statements. Something odd strikes you as you examine a series of recent transactions. You know you returned an expensive household item that stopped working, but you don’t see the credit as appearing on the statement. Without that return being processed, you might go over your credit limit. All of a sudden, you can feel your heart start to pound and you're having trouble breathing. You start to imagine that now, on top of the financial implications of all of this, something is going wrong with your body. The rational idea that the return just hasn’t gone through seems like a remote if not impossible explanation.
If, in reading this scenario, you can vividly imagine that this could happen to you, it’s possible that you have what researchers call a “looming” cognitive style. George Mason psychologist John Riskind, in a 2016 review of his long research career dedicated to this topic, defines this way of viewing the world as a key contributor to maladaptive levels of anxiety. In other words, by taking what is an ambiguous situation and see it as hurtling to the most dire possible outcome, you will invariably become anxious. Your bodily reactions intensify as your mind races to this worst-case scenario.
What differentiates the looming cognitive style from other approaches to anxiety that emphasize dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs is that when things seem to “loom,” your sense of threat starts to hurtle out of control, rapidly escalating. Although it might be somewhat adaptive to try to avoid an actual threat coming your way, when the threat is an imaginary one, your panicky reaction is anything but.
A large body of research based on the looming cognitive style continues to support its role in contributing to anxiety disorders, maintaining further that this cognitive style has trait-like qualities. In a review of 61 previously-published studies whose samples ranged from over 1,000 to over 7,000, National University of Singapore’s Gerard Yeo and colleagues (2020) concluded that the looming cognitive style is “a transdiagnostic vulnerability factor for various anxiety subtypes.”
People with this vulnerability, in the words of the authors, see “excessive or chronic perceptions of threats as rapidly approaching and gaining in magnitude, proximity, or probability.” You don’t want to be caught “flatfooted,” the Singapore team point out, when the danger is real. But when the danger escalates in your mind and your mind only, you’ll become incapacitated by this sense of oncoming doom.
Riskind’s Looming Cognitive Style Questionnaire, which you can see online, provides a way for you to test just how much you are susceptible to these unwarranted exaggerations of threat. Here is one item from this scale, which begins with these instructions:
Read the following scenario, and then “try to vividly imagine it… Concentrate on it and imagine it in as much vivid detail as possible. Then ask yourself the questions that follow, using 5-point scales of from lowest to highest:
Suppose that you are in front of a large audience of strangers. You are speaking about a topic on which you do not know a lot. Some of the people look bored or disinterested, while others look upset. It seems that you could get a very negative audience reaction.
You can see from this questionnaire item that people high in the looming cognitive style view the possibility of bad outcomes as growing and growing even though nothing is really changing about the situation. It’s not like this audience is about to throw things at you because they don’t seem interested or seem upset. It’s that you’re seeing these outcomes as very real possibilities.
In an earlier paper by Koc University’s Ayşe Altan-Atalay (2018), what adds to the negative effects on mental health of the looming cognitive style is “negative mood regulation expectancies,” or the conviction that you can’t control your mood state. Returning to the example of the speaking situation in the Riskind questionnaire, the threat builds and builds in your mind, and as it does, you’re convinced it will get out of control.
The questionnaire measure of this mood regulation ability used in the Altan-Atalay study involved items (reverse scored) such as “When I am upset, telling myself it will pass will calm me down.” As the Turkish authors predicted, the 326 university students (average age 22 years old) who were high in the looming cognitive style and negative mood regulation expectancies also showed the highest level of anxiety on a standard questionnaire measure of this mental state.
Having established the importance of both of these qualities to increasing people’s risk of anxiety and anxiety disorders, the next question becomes what to do about it if you’re someone high in both the looming cognitive style and the belief that you can't control your reactions as you see things getting worse and worse?
As Altan-Atalay point out, reducing “the intensity and uncontrollability of looming scenarios may increase the individuals' beliefs in the usefulness of their coping resources.” When you feel your internal perception of threat rising, according to this view, you can conquer your anxiety by recognizing that the threat really hasn’t changed and that, furthermore, you don’t have to let those feelings overwhelm you.
To sum up, imagining the worst when the worst is a reality in and of itself may be an advisable strategy. However, if you’re constantly letting those looming feelings of doom get in the way of your everyday life, finding more productive outlets of your imagination may just provide an important key to fulfillment.
Do You Tend to Imagine the Worst Out of Every Situation? | Psychology Today
In a business meeting last week, a member of my team asked how we were planning on talking to the community about the upcoming holiday. What holiday? We just finished the holidays. Oh, you mean Valentine’s Day!?!! I then realized Valentine’s Day was just a few days away, and I had nothing prepared. That’s because my husband and I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Love as Daily Practice
I think the idea of a day of love is fantastic, but, on the other hand, I personally believe in practicing love each and every day. I believe in choosing—and practicing—love every day, not just one day a year. Valentine’s Day is a great day to start from, but I feel love—particularly self-love—should be a daily practice.
Love is not always as easy as just loving yourself. We build up a lot of defenses to avoid getting hurt, and sometimes the hurt we experience makes it difficult to accept ourselves for who we are. Love is a feeling we experience. Love is also an action. The more you take action, the more you can experience feelings of love. SO, while feelings come and go, our job is to experience them as we feel them. Valentine’s Day can be a great reminder to feel that love, and a place to start your daily practice.
Practicing Love Every Day
Identify your top 5 values. These values are the principles that drive you, the reason why you get up and go each day. Write these values down, and place a reminder somewhere you will see it often. When you notice your values list, stop for just a moment, take a deep breath and realign with your values by asking yourself what one step you can take to align yourself with at least one value on your values list today?
Love as a daily practice. Prioritize a time each day for you to connect with the values you’ve identified. You’ll start to see when you are living in alignment with your values, you are doing good for others. Practicing love on the daily with the people in your life can also help you learn to practice love for yourself. The more you take time to act on these practices in your daily life, the more you will experience the feeling of love you’ve connected with them. It can be helpful to schedule 30-40 minutes each day to purposely take action with a value in mind.
Prioritize love as an intention. When you encounter a stressful situation during the day, remember your intention to love. Like we said, love is an action—a daily practice—and it’s also a feeling. The thing about feelings is they are not always present for us, or even obvious. Self-love is the feeling of knowing you are loved, while not always having all those funny tingly love feelings in your stomach. It is knowing, ultimately, you are not alone. Love is about accepting those feelings of belonging and connection will come and go.
Practicing Feeling Love
Accept that feelings of love come and go. Just because you do not feel it in the moment doesn’t mean you’re not loved, or incapable of loving. Find evidence of love in your life. Write it down to help you see the truth of that love.
Practice the Reverse Golden Rule. Treat yourself the way you treat others. You do a lot for people. You show up in a lot of different ways, offering kindness, respect, care, and compassion to family, friends and even co-workers. If you want to experience feeling loved, try treating yourself the way you treat those you love.
Learning to Feel the Love
Feeling love is not as easy as loving yourself. You are deserving of love as you are and allowing someone to love you can help you practice love toward yourself. It’s also OK to learn to love yourself, as it will only make your feelings of love stronger overall.
As an eating disorder specialist, I teach individuals that loving the body and, ultimately, the self, is a feeling that exists on a spectrum. One extreme of this is love, and the other is hate. Daily love exists somewhere in the middle, and, the more steps you take in that middle space, the more steps you will take toward experiencing love.
To move toward love, start with respect. Practicing respect for yourself and the people you are interacting with each day, can foster the feelings love you may feel you are missing.
To move toward love, practice appreciation. Notice things you are grateful for, both about yourself and your loved ones, every day. What can you thank yourself for? What can you thank your loved one—or even the people with whom you casually interact—for, every day?
To move toward love, practice grace. Practice grace toward others, and grace toward yourself, by giving up the idea that love is perfect. Love means you accept the good and the bad, the quirks and the strengths, and that you recognize mistakes—both yours and others—do not define value or worth. Practice giving yourself a break when you mess up in just the same way you would forgive a loved one for making a similar mistake.
The actions of love are imperfect, but the feeling of love is! The more love actions you take each day, toward yourself and others, the more you can consistently experience the joy of love in your life. Be sure to practice love today, Valentine’s Day, and I really want to encourage you to find a way to practice it again tomorrow too!
Love as Daily Practice | Psychology Today
It is an unfortunate and sometimes downright upsetting phenomenon to see mental health used as a scapegoat to divert attention from other topics. Many will likely be able to report seeing this happen in the wake of mass shootings. In those instances, some people who wish to divert the conversation away from a focus on gun control may say something like “this isn’t about gun control, this is about mental health.” They tend to claim that untreated mental illness is the real culprit behind the tragedy and often propose solutions such as registries of people with mental health diagnoses that can be used in gun purchases.
While mental health can and certainly often is a factor here—and we personally are always in favor of conversations that might shine a light on the often-overlooked problem of untreated mental illness in this country—the motivation behind this attention is likely simply to turn attention away from another urgently important but less politically desirable topic.
This kind of diversion tactic unfolded again last spring and summer with calls for schools to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Then-President Donald Trump, many of his supporters, and others claimed that keeping schools closed was very threatening to mental health and that the mental health-related risks of not reopening posed a greater threat than the COVID-related risks of reopening.
It goes without saying that school and socialization are positive drivers of youth mental health. But is it really fair to say that keeping schools closed poses a dire threat to mental health? More dire than the threat of serious outbreaks of a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease? It is here that we must better understand what the evidence we have actually says.
In general, and perhaps not surprisingly, school attendance is associated with better mental health and emotional well-being. Being in school can lead to a greater sense of connectedness, social support, and, more practically, better access to services. The benefit is often more pronounced for students with special needs and those who have behavioral or emotional issues and thus for whom extensive use of technology as part of virtual schooling might be difficult.
Indeed, any population that is already vulnerable will struggle more with school closure. For all students, schools are central to general development (especially for young children), building social and emotional skills, food security (which has an impact on mental health), and addressing social and racial inequity (which also has an impact on mental health).
Given the mental health benefits of being in school, does it necessarily follow that we need to rush our children back into these potentially unsafe conditions in the midst of a pandemic that threatens all of us? Ultimately the question comes down to one of weighing risks. And to be able to weigh risks, we have to have a clear understanding of what has happened to mental health (and what is likely to happen to mental health) as a result of the pandemic and associated school closures and general lockdowns.
There is some reason to believe that the pandemic is already taking a toll on mental health, especially among teens. One study out of Italy and Spain found that 85 percent of parents perceived changes in their children’s emotional state during quarantine. High school and college students are clued into the possibility of the pandemic’s negative effects on their mental health, with more than half in a recent survey expressing concern about their own mental health as a result of the COVID pandemic. Professionals in California have also reported an uptick in depression and anxiety in the teen population since COVID began.
Despite these reports, it is difficult to know the ultimate impact of COVID-19 and associated quarantine on mental health. It may take years before we understand the relationship and even then, it will be hard to isolate COVID-19 as the cause, especially since mental health issues are already on the rise among teens and young adults.
In cases such as these, we would normally advocate carefully and scientifically weighing the risks against one another to reach a decision about when to keep schools open and when to shut them down. But there is simply too much uncertainty here to be able to do that. We don’t fully understand how contagious the virus is specifically among young people, we don’t know what the role of school opening is in the perpetuation of large outbreaks, and we also don’t know how long the pandemic will even last.
In our view, it is not acceptable at this stage to keep schools open or reopen schools on account of mental health when COVID cases are extremely high. It is likely that many factors are involved in whether or not opening schools in specific communities is a major driver of increased viral transmission. We simply don’t know enough about the relationship between quarantine and mental health to be able to say that the risks of keeping children out of school outweigh the risks of COVID-19 spreading widely in a community. In the end, we need to do everything we can to protect both the physical and mental health of as many people as possible.
Mental Health and School Re-Entry | Psychology Today
The most important thing to realise about being happy is that it is “how” not “what”. Things will not make you happy. Affluenza – coined as the dogged pursuit of “more” is particularly prevalent in Western societies and will often be pursued at the risk of “overload, debt and anxiety”. An awareness of this behaviour can stop us from falling into its clutches – more does not make people happy and Professor Leper of Stanford University found, paradoxically, too much choice actively makes people unhappy. Happiness won’t arrive, it has to be cultivated. Only behaviour and its consequences will make you happy. Being happy requires you to work your “how” muscles and to be aware; you need to consciously focus on the good things and not the bad. This is not to bury your head in the sand, some things need to be faced up to, but you need to focus on those things you can have agency over.
To be happy you need to concentrate on the following
1. Worry only about things you can change. Do as much as you can and then park it. Accept you have done the maximum and then leave it alone. We are not in control of everything!
2. Be pro-active not reactive. If something bothers you, tackle it don’t complain about it. Reactivity is a form of passive/aggressive behaviour – you will never resolve anything just go on being annoyed. In this way, you deny your ability to tackle things which can add to feelings of victimhood and helplessness. Act to change things you don’t like or in turn, forget about them. Resentment or annoyance only affects the person feeling these.
3. Get outside, preferably in nature with trees, flowers, birds, animals – all of these make humans happy. If you can’t, then bring nature to you – a plant or a window box. A view of trees or nature from a hospital bed has been shown to speed up recovery.
4. Contact – we all need human interaction but you must be available for this. If you walk around looking at your shoes you won’t see when someone nods or smiles at you. Make overtures to other humans – say hello on your walk or comment on the weather – be friendly and this will be returned by most people. Join a group, smile, get involved; care about something or someone.
5. Realise that small things are actually the big things. It is the patchwork of small events and comforts that make up our life. A conversation here, a cup of coffee, a glimpse of a robin, the scent of roses, fresh rain on the grass, a hot bath, a good book, a friendly wave. (Add your own small joys). These are the fabric of life but to realise their full impact we must acknowledge and recognise this – work your happiness muscles!
6. Belonging. Humans need to belong to something, to feel part of something bigger. This can be your family, a religious group, a volunteer programme, a book group, your friends, your office, your community, your country. Being part of a community is good for us and embeds us in our life and gives us purpose.
7. Gratitude. Be grateful for what you have. If you think you have nothing, imagine a hurricane takes everything you have and you are naked and alone. Now recognise that is not the case and that you do have some things. Gratitude for what we have and a recognition of that is good for our mental health and makes us happier. Keeping a gratitude diary for a month, where you note three things to be grateful for at the end of each day, has been shown to improve depression and raise happiness.
8. Limit your exposure to social media and news channels. Too much of either has been shown to raise anxiety levels and reduce happiness. Watch comedies and feel-good films and read books with happy outcomes, play music that makes you happy.
9. Look after yourself. If you put the wrong fuel in your car it will run badly. If you miss its service or MOT it won’t run well. Humans are the same. Feed yourself well, get enough rest, take regular, moderate exercise, do things or mix with people who make you laugh – think radiators not drains in terms of who you befriend. Some people are just not a good fit for our personalities and that’s OK but we need to limit our contact with these people.
10. Be kind to yourself and others. Lose that critical voice in your head that tells you off or calls you an idiot. Instead cultivate a nurturing voice, one of encouragement and kindness – the way you would talk to a friend, a beloved pet or a small child. Recognize that life can be hard and kindness goes a long way towards mitigating that.
None of these will guarantee your happiness. We are living in difficult and turbulent times. However, it is well known that what you pay most attention to, is what you will get. Trying not to do something will mean that you concentrate on the negative – try not to think of a pink elephant and it will occupy your thoughts. Try to diet and you will think of food all day long. Give up drinking and you will long for a glass of wine. However think of being healthier or adding fruit to your diet or noticing three positive things in your neighbourhood and that’s what you will focus on. Happiness needs attention in order to flourish. Exercise your “how-to” happiness muscles and you will benefit for as long as you choose to invest in this behaviour.
The 10 Vital Happiness Rules | Psychology Today
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.