Podcast: Love Your Life Through the Science of Happiness

Jenn talks to Dr. Lisa Coyne about positive psychology and how we can create happiness hacks in our daily lives. Lisa shares tips and tricks from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to better handle unexpected stress and avoid self-sabotaging behaviors.

Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School, and is a senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.) at McLean Hospital. Dr. Coyne is the author of “The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years,” a book for parents of young children.

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Episode Transcript

Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.

The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.

Alright, so hi folks, welcome, thank you so much for joining today. I would like to officially introduce myself, I’m Jenn Kearney and I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital and I hope wherever you are in the world, you are doing well today.

So today is all about being happy and there’s a ton of things that make us happy but they all depend on who you are and what you love doing so to get us all in the right head space for this session let’s take the next couple of seconds and think about what makes you undeniably happy. So, Lisa, what’d you come up with?

Lisa: I’m just thinking like I’m enjoying this really delicious little clementine that I’m eating actually. It’s the very first thing that pops into mind and one of the things that I do is, especially when things are hard, try and cultivate a practice of really noticing even the smallest things that make me happy.

And it might be a snuggle from one of the dogs, or delicious clementine in winter, or my sweater’s nice and cozy and warm. But the things that make me happiest are also the things that give me a sense of purpose in my life.

So doing these things makes me happy, even though it also makes me anxious sometimes happiness doesn’t always come unfettered. Sometimes it comes from leaning into the things that are hard and trying things and discovering your own strengths.

But yeah, I love travel, I love adventure, I love food, I love my family most of all. You know, so any kind of, you know, being with them is usually a source of happiness. What about you? Enough about me. What about you?

Jenn: When I was thinking of a way to actually kick off the session, I figured I’d pick my partner’s brain before he left for work and I was like, “What makes you happy?” And he was like, “Sleeping late and you not asking me these questions at 6:00 a.m.”

But you very kindly asked me what I thought and I was like, you know, off the top of my head I’d probably have to say like my perfect day would be a nice long run, a solid pepperoni pizza, and an ice-cold IPA. But…

Lisa: That sounds good.

Jenn: But he was like, “So is that sustainable every day?” And I said, “No,” and he’s like, “Well you’re supposed to talk about being happy right? So how are you going to talk about everything in between?” And I was like, “Do you want my job? You’re pretty good at this.”

So, I wanted to get started by first and foremost Lisa, introducing you to everybody and then we’re going to talk about like all of that stuff in between those happy moments because for me running, pepperoni pizza and an IPA is not sustainable every day as much as I’d like for it to be.

Lisa: Right.

Jenn: So, we’re going to talk about positive psychology, ways to feel happier, avoiding toxic positivity which has become a much more popular buzzword and how we can help each other and ourselves see those silver linings on cloudy days.

So, if you’re unfamiliar with Lisa you are in for a real treat Dr. Coyne is one of my favorite recurring guests. She’s also a psychologist and senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute at McLean Hospital we lovingly call it OCDI Jr.

She’s also the author of many books including one that came out in the Fall that I’ve been recommending to basically every single person I come across which is called “Stop Avoiding Stuff.”

So, as I said before, Lisa, I’ve got 1,000 questions about the topic but let’s get started with what is positive psychology?

Lisa: Well, you know what? It’s about noticing the good, right? It’s not about pretending to be happy all the time and it’s not about chasing happiness because what we know from the social psych literature is that chasing happiness is a bad goal, right?

Because we can’t as your partner pointed out Jenn we can’t be happy all the time, right? But we can really notice and cultivate a practice of you know, touching upon it and being aware of it when it’s there.

And we can cultivate practices like engaging in those things, those behaviors that we think are meaningful or that bring us joy, you know, such that we can create more happiness in our lives, right?

So positive psychology is you know, simply put it’s basically the science of what makes life worth living. You know, what is it? It’s a scientific approach to really studying strengths, our thoughts, our feelings, our behaviors and its strength based instead of weakness based, right?

So, it’s about how do you build a good life? What does it mean to live a good life? And what do people value in their lives that brings them a sense of meaning and purpose and joy, right?

In addition to the struggle and an important piece of this is really understanding that this is not about you’re living a good life if you’re happy all the time, that’s just not so and that you know, we’ll touch on toxic positivity or that there’s something wrong with you if you’re sad, no, not at all, right?

Think about your emotions like the keys on a piano. What if I said you only can have the white keys, not the black keys? You couldn’t make music, right?

It wouldn’t be there, you can’t carve out just a positive emotional experience so it is however, about noticing ‘cause we don’t always attend to the things that are beautiful and bring us joy in our lives.

We get busy, we get focused on other things, we get wrapped up in our heads so it’s about that, it’s about focusing on that and building our strengths and building our resilience.

Jenn: So, I also really liked the piano analogy because as somebody who played very poorly for like a decade of my life it’s nice to hear that like all the black keys are the sharps and flats so you need to get all the sharps and flats in your life with all the major notes.

Lisa: Absolutely, gives you so much color, lovely.

Jenn: We had someone write in saying rather than feeling blue or depressed, I’d say I’ve been feeling extreme apathy, how bad is this? And how do you fight feelings of apathy?

Lisa: So, I would say, any emotions are information, okay? And I don’t think you need to fight it, I don’t think it’s helpful to say I don’t want the apathy key on my piano, but what you might do is consider what is this telling me?

You know, what information is this giving me about my life? And when I’m apathetic, I start engaging in practices of noticing what are things that I care about? And like, we’re going to end the session with some of those practices actually, we’ll do some actually in our session.

But really noticing slowing down what are things that I’m grateful for? Even if they’re really small things, you know, starting with that and being gentle with yourself because I think one of the things that leads to sadness is us policing our emotions and thinking there’s a right way to feel and that we’re only healthy if we feel this right way.

No, not at all. I mean being human means we are going to have negative emotions, it’s just part of life and we’re going to feel apathetic, we’re going to feel uninspired, I don’t love those moments either it’s like being in the doldrums when there’s no wind when you’re trying to sail, right?

So, there’s a great saying when there’s no wind take to the oars and so what that could look like is start a practice of engaging in one small thing an act of kindness maybe for yourself or maybe just one small thing that’s, you know, something that you used to enjoy and just see what that feels like, you know?

And make a practice of it and just see connect with someone you care about you know, send a text to a friend, give a call if anybody calls anymore I guess everybody’s texting these days.

Jenn: Everybody’s texting or Zooming or Snapchatting.

Lisa: Yes.

Jenn: So, I know that I’ve read half a dozen times that you can change your brain through adjusting our state of mind. Is that true? And how does focusing on positivity change our brain if it is?

Lisa: So, I want to be careful with this one, because it is helpful to cultivate particular attitudes or different relationships with our thoughts and feelings, but it’s a myth that you have to change your thinking to change your behavior, right?

Most frequently changing your behavior is what actually changes your thinking and brings you in contact with more things that you care about but we’ll get to that in a minute.

So, there are useful perspectives to take on your thoughts and your feelings and one of them I want to talk about is based on the work of Carol Dweck who talks about, specifically, mindset, right?

And she talks about the difference of having sort of a growth mindset instead of a success mindset. And what that means is that sometimes we make thinking errors, right? Where we will think if I did a bad job at something I’m a failure, right?

And we do these you know, in the CBT literature we call these cognitive distortions. It’s just a perspective, right? It’s a way of thinking that we kind of like do this all or none thing or like if I’m late to work I’m an irresponsible person or if somebody turns me down when I ask them out for a date I’m unlovable, okay?

And our minds do that they’re kind of like steel traps where they just latch onto something and then they’ll use that as evidence of what we are in sum total, right?

So, one way to think about this too, and parents make this error like, oh my goodness my child is smart, look how smart they are, they’re so bright, right? And that’s a wonderful thing to think but here’s the thing if your child goes to school and they get a B on a test, what does that mean to them?

I’m not smart, smart kids don’t get Bs, right? So, a better way to think about this is to not think about the outcome or not focus on the outcome, but instead focus on the process and focus on the effort, right?

You’re doing a great job working, you’re doing a great job striving and trying, you’re doing a great job learning, you know because you want to reinforce the behavior not the outcome, right?

Who knows what outcomes we’re all going to have in our lives. So, thinking about this growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset is really incredible and actually this reminds me there’s a great blog that Steve Hayes, who’s one of the founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, wrote about his son Stevie.

And he wrote about Stevie getting a black belt in karate and when Stevie was little, he was born hypotonic, he had lots of muscle weakness and you know Steve thought well, he’s just you know, not going to be able to do these things.

And lo and behold, Stevie was and he talked about like, it’s a really beautiful blog, I don’t want to say too much more ‘cause I want you to read it but basically he made a scientific error that like you know, when we have outcomes based on lots and lots of data, it doesn’t predict for the individual, right?

Like, so your mind might have a story, a fixed mindset of people like me can’t do X, right? Add a yet to that. Yet, right? I didn’t think I could go to Everest Base Camp. I made it, right?

You know, and this is the thing we can either kind of live constrained by these beliefs that we have about ourselves, these kind of constructed senses of ourselves or we can say, you know what?

That’s a great story and let me go find out, that’s more of a growth mindset, right? That’s kind of stepping back and diffusing from those ideas of who we are and moving forward anyway and that’s flexibility that’s what we call psychological flexibility. It was a very long answer Jenn, sorry.

Jenn: I think it was a fantastic answer.

Lisa: Oh, good.

Jenn: We had someone write in saying that they’re a pretty even-keeled person so they don’t get many highs or lows, they’re not too visible, my partner gets really frustrated that I don’t “get excited about anything,” how can I explain that I don’t demonstrate my emotions by doing cartwheels in the living room when something good happens?

Lisa: That’s so funny I’m thinking I don’t do cartwheels in the living room either. I dunno I think I might joke about it if it were me this is just me personally I’d be like, I’m excited on the inside.

And the other thing too to show excitement especially if you’re in a social context, right? And it’s your partner and you care about them, ask them about it, tell me about what you think about it, you seem so excited about this that’s really awesome.

And you can also if you’re not super like, you know, emotionally extreme you can certainly appreciate your partner’s joy in it and share that with them and that might actually be what they’re looking for rather than a huge display of cartwheels so try that and see how that works.

Jenn: I actually thought my partner wrote that question because I’m the person who as he’s said to other folks, he’s like, “She’s the one that shows all the emotion for the two of us,” or as my family likes to call me an emotional tornado.

So, someone is curious how do you handle other people’s feelings of discomfort when you feel sad or you cry?

Lisa: Right, that’s a good one because you know as a clinician, we’re often taught it is not okay, you should not show emotions when you are working with clients, but I’m quite regularly moved by my clients who I care for really deeply.

And you know, the thing is how our attitude ourself, right? How we model showing emotion makes an impact on others, right?

So, if I am sad and people watch me actively trying to hide that, minimizing that, dismissing that, pushing through it, I’m giving some messages about, you know what, it’s not okay to be sad, right?

And the thing is it’s okay to be sad and you don’t need to be rescued, right? So, one of the things that I as a parent try to do is especially because, you know, I feel like this is different across, you know, biological gender I guess.

At least like with or contracts like where for boys it’s harder, it’s less accepted, it’s more stigmatized to show the softer emotions like sadness and vulnerability. For girls, it’s harder to show anger.

And so, I make a point of modeling all of that, right? And also, that it’s okay to have those things so think about like, what kinds of messages are you giving? And actually, a great resource to kind of think about this and help you kind of frame it, is Brene Brown has this really beautiful family manifesto, right?

Where she talks about here’s our family manifesto, like not to teach you to not feel emotions but teach you how to, right? To show you that it’s okay, that we make a space, right?

And so, I feel like it’s natural for people to reach out and want to rescue you when you’re sad and to support you and that’s great, sometimes that’s really beautiful and asking for help is hard, isn’t it? Right?

And showing your vulnerability in that way is difficult. And also feeling sad doesn’t mean you’re broken, it doesn’t mean we’re weak, vulnerability is actually a source of strength, you know and that’s something Brene Brown talks quite a lot about in her work.

Jenn: And I know as somebody who has experienced a full range of emotions, you can learn a lot of really important things about yourself in some of your darkest dreariest times.

Lisa: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jenn: Can you talk a little bit more about how behavior impacts emotion?

Lisa: Sure. So, in every way. That’s a big question. So, let’s think about this for a second. When we feel an emotion that’s, we perceive as negative, right?

That we don’t want to feel, that we would rather avoid, all of a sudden the scope of our attention narrows to how can I get rid of that emotion? How can I stop that?

And what happens is it makes us less sensitive to other things that might be going on in our environment that might be beautiful, joyful, meaningful, okay? So, one small thing that’s a behavioral way that we can impact our emotion, right?

And again, we don’t want to chase emotions, but we do want to, you know, sort of behave in ways that are consistent with the self we most want to be, right?

So, one thing we can do is kind of notice what we’re feeling, make a space for all those things and kind of drop the rope and the struggle with that, and just allow it.

You don’t have to like it, this is not about endurance, this isn’t about white knuckling your way through it, this is about genuinely welcoming it even if it’s negative emotion, right? And when you do that, when you free up your bandwidth to learn from other things in the environment and to make other choices, right?

About what you might want to do. So, for example, if I’m sad, if I’m having a down day, I can mope, I mean I can mope with the best of ‘em, you know and stay in my jammies, turn the lights off and not do much of anything.

Or I can notice that I’m sad. I can allow it and then I can choose to maybe get up and go for a walk outside and notice the weather and the snowdrops are blooming, I noticed that the other day and that gave me just a tiny spark of joy, it was really lovely.

And I wouldn’t have noticed that had I kind of snuggled up with that sadness and tried to work on making it go away. Okay?

So, behavior works when it’s purposeful and when it leads us to those things that bring us vitality, those things that we care most deeply about, right?

Trying to feel a certain thing is not necessarily a helpful strategy, right? And I’ll show you why. So, Jenn I noticed that behind you, you have a plant on the top shelf there, you see that plant?

Jenn: Yes, and I see that its leaves look a little sad, I keep trying to turn it.

Lisa: It’s a sad plant. Okay so here’s what I want you to do. Are you ready? I’m going to give you an assignment. I want you to fall in love with that plant. Love it. You love it? Are you there to feel that?

Jenn: I embarrassingly enough have names for my plants and I talk to them.

Lisa: Okay that’s really sad but. Okay so let’s try it a different way, since you already love the plant, I want you to hate it.

Go ahead and hate that plant, can you cultivate that hatred? Right now, that and actually feel it? You cannot big liar.

Jenn: I mean, there’s enough times that I’ve complained about how much no matter what I do it’s still wilting. So, there’s been a lot of times where I’m like, oh this plant sucks, but I can’t hate it that much.

Lisa: Right, and that’s the thing is like it’s not possible to choose what you’re feeling and just generate it out of thin air. We just can’t do it.

And yet sometimes like when we think about toxic positivity, like be happy, put on a smile and that will release emotions, no it will not, okay?

It’s great if those smiles are genuine, but we’re not really generally in charge of our thoughts and feelings. We are however, always in charge of what we choose to do and our behaviors, okay?

So, if you want to cultivate a sense of joy, if you want to cultivate a sense of pleasure, if you want to cultivate a sense of gratitude, those are behaviors we can engage in that can do that so we cultivate practices. That make sense?

Jenn: It does make sense and I’m really glad that I openly admitted to the internet about how.

Lisa: You love your plant?

Jenn: I do, it makes me happy. So, I know that you mentioned the buzzword toxic positivity.

Lisa: Yes.

Jenn: And if you look online there are so many articles about it at this point. Can we talk a little bit about toxic positivity and its impact on not only our own mental health but the mental health of other people?

Lisa: Yes. And what toxic positivity really refers to is this idea that you should just be happy all the time and even if you’re really sad put on a mask. Oh my goodness, you know?

I think just think yourselves like when you’re with people and they’re always positive and nothing phases them ever, what do you feel like, what does that make you feel? Right?

First of all, it’s just fake and people can generally tell if we’re insincere, okay? So, it creates disconnection, right?

It’s great to have a good attitude, but to really kind of fake happiness just for the purpose of, you know, I don’t know, getting through things is really unhelpful because it also disconnects you from your own emotions, which remember are information, okay?

Can’t just have the white keys, got to have the whole set, otherwise you can’t make music, okay? So, what it does is it can be harmful if it’s insincere, if it’s forceful, if it de-legitimizes like genuinely hard things, like, for example, the pandemic.

One of the things that I found super motivating at the beginning of the pandemic was I was reading all of these things that were written for parents about like, you’re a superhero, you can do this and I thought, oh my God, take a second and just be like, wow, this is hard.

We’re being asked to do really hard things that are beyond our ability to do them and yet, that’s the situation to, you know, plaster over that with fake flowers just felt so wrong to me.

And so, rather than doing that, I think it’s important to make a space for the whole of your emotional experience and not beat yourself up for feeling it, that’s one thing that we can do, which is not beat ourselves up for not being happy enough, you know?

Jenn: That segues really nicely into the next question, someone wrote in saying, “I’m a pretty happy person, but it’s hard to be happy when you have a family member with an illness. In our case, someone in our immediate family struggles with a substance use disorder, and of course it impacts the whole family’s vibe, do you have any suggestions on how to bring some light into our lives?”

Lisa: Yeah, I do. And again, remember that this isn’t going to be clinical advice but there are groups for family members of individuals, support groups who are struggling with substance use and I’m sure Jenn can put some of those up.

I’m sure some of those occur at McLean even. One thing I would suggest is find a community that gets it and let yourself talk and listen to that community ‘cause they can help. Get some support, that’s the first thing.

And the second thing is, you know, it’s really hard when you have someone in your family who’s struggling and also remember that that struggle is not the sum total of that person, right? And the battle with whatever the condition is, is not the sum total of your family.

And just remember, that there are so many other aspects, right? To those folks who struggle and our relationships with them that we can value and cherish and amplify and attend to while also making space for those struggles.

You know, so again, not plastering over the hard parts, but really taking the small joys when they’re there. You know, we’ve all been in relationships with folks when there are aspects of their behavior that we really don’t like, that we really don’t appreciate.

And, if you focus solely on those things, it’s going to be a hard, hard run, right? And so, there’s a balance to be had here to really notice the little joys as well that come up and think about like, what are the things about that person or this relationship that you’re grateful for?

And, you know sometimes those things show up in sadness because they’re missing, right? And again, that’s a good example of how sadness is information because it’s pointing you towards the things that you care most about, right?

Those things that really matter. And so, take some time and get in touch with those feelings too, make a space and see if there are things that you can kind of broaden your perspective to include some of the things that you do cherish and that you do value about that person in that relationship.

Jenn: So, when so many of us are encountering difficult situations or we’re feeling down in the dumps, I mean I’m sure you’ve heard 1,000 times, grin and bear it.

Lisa: Yeah.

Jenn: Fake it until we make it. All of those delightful idioms that are basically like suck it up buttercup. Are they actually effective?

Or how much of that is placebo or should we just try to eliminate these from our vocabulary altogether?

Lisa: I think that there’s a place for this but I think how you do it, how you do the fakery till you makery, it matters, right?

So, if it’s like, I’m going to fake being happy, that’s not going to be helpful to you at all. But if it’s like, I don’t feel confident, I don’t feel ready, I’m too anxious to do this, I’m too sad to do this.

I think cultivating a different kind of relationship with those feelings and moving forward and trying and allowing yourself to make mistakes and do things imperfectly is a better way to fake it till you make it.

You know, and like, I can give you a little example, like when I know I’ve told this story before, but it was a meaningful thing to me like when I first started giving talks a million years ago and I would panic during the talks.

I had to learn what to do about feeling so anxious in the middle of talks. And it went something like this, you know, I’d walk out, get ready to talk, see the faces, immediate signs of panic happening.

And then I would just remind myself, you can either make this about you managing your panic, or you can try and teach well, which do you choose? And I would choose teaching well. And then the next step, this is the fake till you make it part.

I would let myself be anxious but then I would think, okay well what would a competent speaker do right now? Well, they would make eye contact with their audience and connect, right?

That’s a good thing so I would do that. And so it was a little sidestep, right? It wasn’t exactly faking it till you make it, but I didn’t have to struggle with like, am I competent speaker or am I not?

My mind says I’m not, I’m panicking, you know? It was like, well what would someone who is a good speaker do? I want to be a good speaker, what behavior can I engage in that is consistent with being a good speaker, right?

So that’s what I’m going to say to you guys is, what can you do in your life what thing, action can you take that’s going to lead you in the direction of the person you most want to be?

Just do that thing, you know, you don’t need to argue with your mind or change your mind about whether you can or you can’t do something, your mind is going to always tell you, you’re probably not ready, you probably can’t, don’t bother, right?

So, you can get stuck arguing with that, or you can just choose when those thoughts arise, okay? And the steps are stepping back and noticing what your mind is saying to you, the story that’s arising.

Deciding like, do I want to be arguing with my head right now? Do I want to have this argument with myself, or do I want to take a step in this direction of being my best self? The step in the direction of stuff that gives me vitality and joy and choose, right?

‘Cause you don’t need to manage your emotions to take a step, you just don’t, right? See what happens, play with that, experiment with that and then, interesting things happens if you do that consistently over time, right?

And you look back and you see where you are based on where you were, that is really neat and you make some really interesting discoveries in that way.

Jenn: So somebody wrote in saying, “When I think of being happy, I think of all of the people that I surround myself with and they give me great joy.”

How problematic is it though that they’re relying on an outside source for their happiness?

Lisa: I don’t know that it’s problematic at all, right? I think that we’re social creatures, we’re herd animals for the most part. I have a huge part of myself too that likes to be by myself and recharge as sort of an extrovert or introvert or whichever one I am.

But I think is it okay to need other people? Of course, right? Is it okay to seek social support? Yes, yes, right? I mean, think about how humans are born, right? We’re born and it takes us forever ‘cause we have these giant brains, right?

And our physical development doesn’t develop as fast as our brain, we can’t hold our head up on our own. We require care from a very young age.

And we grow up in this dyadic relationship where when we cry, our mom comes and nurtures us and soothes us and we have a release of oxytocin, this goodness, right? This hormone that makes us feel nurtured.

We still need that in our lives, that’s what social support is, right? And that is one way to cultivate happiness, is to cultivate a practice of connecting with those people around us.

And interestingly, one of the things that connects us if you read the work of Kristin Neff who talks about self-compassion, is our common humanity. And that is that sometimes those things that are hardest, sometimes are the things that connects us, the glue that binds us together.

And so, when I’m teaching workshops I’ll often ask, is there anybody in here who’s never ever had a thought that they weren’t good enough at something, that they didn’t fall short in some area, they didn’t feel disappointed in themselves or disappoint someone else?

Never, never, right? And, it’s amazing that everyone reports those things and so sometimes it’s those things that are the hardest, that are actually the things that let us be most intimate and vulnerable with each other and receive the most support.

So, I don’t think it’s a problem at all, you know, to, you know, need others for help and to rely on that, I mean that’s what friends are for too.

Jenn: I know you had mentioned oxytocin, but how is it that exercising can so greatly affect our mood and make us happier?

Lisa: Dopamine, the other favorite. Oh my goodness. So, it’s really wonderful because when you exercise and there’s all sorts of data and studies on this.

Exercise is such a good thing and they’ve even drilled down into different kinds of exercise and Jenn lucky for you, running is like a winner in most of these areas.

Jenn: Yes, the delightfully coined runner’s high, yes.

Lisa: The runner’s high and it’s really wonderful so what happens is you basically, like running and the act of physical activity will boost your mood and it will boost it for several hours after the exercise even if the exercise is hard, right?

And I almost never, when I was training to go to Nepal again, I almost never really wanted to go exercise. And I used to do all sorts of things to kind of, you know, maintain my commitment to going.

Like, just get on the treadmill for five minutes and you can get off if you want, of course I wouldn’t, right? Or books on tape, oh yeah I’ll pair it with a fun book on tape or a fun podcast.

But I always felt fabulous after, always, and it just put me in such a great mood for most of my mornings and I was just so happy about that. So that’s actually one thing, that’s another thing you can do to boost your mood if you really just want a boost in your mood.

I mean, exercise can never be like a bad thing. Anything in excess is a bad thing, and we’re not going to talk about that in this particular podcast, but you know, healthy levels of exercise are really great, especially running.

Jenn: And there’s also research out there that shows that reconnecting with nature so simply just being outside…

Lisa: Forest bathing.

Jenn: Does wonders for our mental health and our moods.

Lisa: 100%. On our treadmill we have like a NordicTrack thing, not to do like a commercial for NordicTrack, but I’m really excited because Monday morning.

They’re doing a live hike up Kala Patthar, which is an Everest base camp and I’m so excited to get on my treadmill on morning at eight o’clock and go back there ‘cause I was there and I’m so excited to reconnect with that, isn’t that amazing?

Jenn: That’s so cool. Yeah.

Lisa: It’s so cool. It’s the iFit program if you’re curious. But yes, absolutely being out in nature is so important even if you get out like for a little bit every day, that’s a great practice.

Jenn: So someone was asking about how to sell positive psychology to clients who have systemic issues that they feel that are out of their control.

Lisa: Okay so if it were me right? As a clinician I think it would be a really hard sell, right? But I do think helping your client be curious about a new practice of cultivating a small activity that will help them be more in contact of those positive things in their lives, those things that bring them joy is helpful, right?

And so when I assign things in my sessions usually I won’t over explain it, I’ll say, I want you to try something and just give it a shot, see what happens, come back and tell me about it. I don’t want to tell them too much about it because I want them to find out for themselves, right?

Because I think sometimes as practitioners we’re less effective, right? If we are explaining how to ride the bicycle, rather than telling the client to go get on the bicycle and tell me how it went, right?

So, for me, sometimes psychoeducation is helpful. There’s definitely a place for it and sometimes it’s not so I’m more inclined to kind of give them a small practice, right? Like here’s a really simple one.

And some of these that I have here for you guys are directly from that book, “Stop Avoiding Stuff” but you can find them anywhere. Practice three good things. Have a practice every day at the end of the day, write down three good things, right?

For kids, you might have a little jar and have them just write down even one good thing that happened to them, one positive thing they noticed. That it was a sunny day, put it in the jar, do it every day. Pretty soon you have 365 after a year, positive things that have happened, right?

So, just taking some time to observe the things that are positive and sometimes for clients that are really stuck, even just noticing the absence of a bad thing can be a really like lovely respite that they may not just generally be doing so that might be something that you can do.

Jenn: We had a lot of folks asking about how they feel like they have to have two different personalities.

The real me and the me at work and I recognize that working in mental health we oftentimes have the privilege that at work we don’t have to necessarily pretend that everything is okay, but a lot of people do, they have to put a smile on, they end up feeling fake.

Several folks have expressed that they don’t feel like they should or can allow their true feelings to be shown to their colleagues because they feel it’s their responsibility to maintain positivity and uplift the people that they’re working with. Yeah, it’s exhausting. Is this normal and how do people stop doing this?

Lisa: Yeah, I used to feel that way too and I used to really struggle with, I was just a very I guess black and white thinker as a kid where I didn’t understand how you could feel one set of things, but that you had to be fake and I didn’t like it when people around me were like that either and I remember that struggle really vividly.

So, the first thing I would do with this is just ask a question, what is it like for you when the people around you feel like they’re kind of, you know, fake happy all the time, how does that feel?

Does it make you feel connected? Does it help you feel happy or instead does it make you feel like, oh jeez what’s wrong with me everybody looks so happy and I’m not, okay?

So, I think that there is certainly a place to have skills in your emotions to regulate such that you’re choosing what to do that’s going to be effective in that situation rather than reacting in a knee-jerk way to your emotions, right?

We all need social confidence that’s important, at the same time, you know, there are different ways to express your emotions. And I would think about how can you explore taking some risks with sharing, and like it’s not always going to be appropriate to wear your heart on your sleeve.

Not always appropriate to like yell at people if you’re really mad at them, okay? Sometimes never, but I think noticing your own feelings and noticing that you’re making mindful choices about how to express them in ways that are adaptive and effective in your workplace I think is going to be different than faking, right?

Like than feeling like I’m just putting on a fake face, I’m just hiding everything, right? It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling and you should remind yourself of that all the time, there’s nothing wrong with feeling any emotion, right?

We don’t always love it or like it and certainly I don’t love being sad when that shows up or angry or jealous or frustrated or small and, you know, disappointed in myself, I don’t love those.

And, it’s important to cultivate a space for them because you need your bandwidth for other things. You need your bandwidth to work on those things that you care about. You don’t need to use it to hide what you’re feeling.

So, I’d encourage you to make a space and really kind of notice, what am I being about in this moment, right? Is it about managing my emotion, hiding it or am I making some mindful choices about being my best self at work? My most effective self at work?

You know, and the interesting thing too is when you start talking to people about, you know, you may find that they’re feeling the same way and that’s a really nice point of contact to kind of share, you know with someone you trust about like, this is really hard and I don’t love to kind of having to be positive all the time.

And it’s also okay to not be positive all the time frankly, you know, and to say, you know, I’m having a hard day, it’s a rough day and that’s okay. Yeah, go ahead.

Jenn: We’ve had so many hard things happen to all of us in the last year that it almost feels impossible to say that every day has been a good day.

Lisa: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, and part of having skill in emotions is not policing how they’re expressed necessarily, but it’s cultivating a kind relationship with them as visitors that we’re all going to be visited by.

And some they’re going to stay for a while then they’re going to go, you know, and also practicing flexibility when we are experiencing hard emotions, right? In our behavior. So, lots of times when we have a negative emotion we feel like it’s a have to, oh, I’m sad, I have to stay in bed, I can’t.

Or I’m anxious I can’t do that, that’s too hard. Or I’m angry, I’ve got to go yell. No you don’t. And that’s the thing is noticing, cultivating an awareness and not necessarily giving them power over you by letting them direct your behavior.

You can direct what you choose, right? And the first step is kind of being mindful and noticing, making the space.

Jenn: So I know we’ve used the phrase making space a lot of times throughout the session, can you provide a little bit more clarity into what it means to make space and how folks can do it throughout different facets of their lives?

Lisa: Yes. And actually we can do it right now, I can show you just a really small little thing that you can do, okay? If you’re listening you certainly don’t have to do this, but you can. You can close your eyes just for a minute. Notice your breath.

Just take a moment to let your attention rest there and just notice the sensation of breathing. And now take a moment to just check in with yourself. And see how you’re feeling. And whatever emotions are there.

See if you can just soften around those emotions. Just take a moment to acknowledge each. And breathe. Next see if you can ask yourself this question, what is it I most need right now?

And see if you can extend to yourself just one small act of kindness in this moment whether it’s shifting just a little bit in how you’re sitting to make yourself 10% more comfortable. Whether it’s telling yourself it’s okay, to feel what you’re feeling, it makes sense.

Whether it’s giving yourself permission to stay here now with us on our podcast, instead of worrying, being in the future, thinking about what you have to do next, jumping to the past whatever it is, just see if you can give yourself some small kindness.

Jenn: It’s one of those moments where you’re like, I forget where I am and what I’m doing, ‘cause that was so zen.

Lisa: Yup. And there you have it so that’s just a tiny little practice. What did it take two minutes? That’s something that you can do, right?

Just check in with yourself as an act of self-care in the day, in the morning, when you have a hard moment, just slow down and notice and that is really the first step to cultivating first of all, space, second of all the ability to choose what to do next.

And if you can choose, you can start to engage in things that are going to bring you joy, happiness, vitality in little steps.

Jenn: So, we have several folks asking and I have been guilty of this in the past as well. I base a lot of my happiness on external validation from peers or other people.

How do I move away from this and generate a sense of internal validation from within?

Lisa: I love that question and thank you whoever asked that. That’s a great question. The first thing I’m going to suggest is notice, how does it work when you get that external validation from others?

Does it solve it forever? Or is it something that you feel like you need to keep going back again and again and again? Right?

Because we have stories about, I need to know if I’m okay, if other people think I’m okay and I want you to notice really how that works ‘cause it might give some short-term confidence maybe or comfort but in the long-term, it might just hide or mask this craving that just keeps going, right?

So, one thing that I practice and then I teach others to practice is instead of that, think about what kind of person is it important for me to be? What is important to me about living a good life? What does living a good life mean to me? Right?

Rather than looking for external validation, start checking out am I choosing to take action in ways that are consistent with that or not? Right? Am I choosing?

And then if you notice that there’s a big disparity there, start choosing and start taking little steps in that direction, right?

And over time, that’s one of the things that I find is very useful, really living your way into a place where you’re content and where you’re feeling like you are living in a meaningful, deep, rich way. So that’s what I would suggest with that.

Jenn: Someone wrote in and I’m sure we’ve all been in the situation before is that delivering bad news or saying things that cause others to be upset had a really profound influence on their life because they feel bad for saying it.

Then you feel bad for their feeling, then you feel bad for being the cause of their feelings so it’s like a triple whammy of just feeling bad. So, more often than not, we try to avoid it, right?

Also, not the good way to go, so how do you best handle honestly delivering news that can cause others to have strong reactions?

Lisa: Yeah, and I don’t know what kind of news this person’s talking about but what I do as a practice, you know, in giving kind of constructive feedback to people is that I make sure it always comes from a loving space.

It comes from a space where I trust this person’s ability to handle it. I make a space in myself that I know delivering this news is going to be really hard, and I choose to stay with that person, you know, to see if I can be a support to them as they reflect it out, you know?

And it’s hard, right? Because like as a teacher, in order to teach people, right? And train people well, you have to be willing to feel uncomfortable giving feedback. You also have to be willing to take feedback, right?

And we can’t really control what other people feel. And so that’s one thing to notice too, is like give yourself permission, it’s not up to you how this person is going to respond.

You know, and you can’t control that and nor are you responsible for that other person’s feelings. What you are responsible for though, is giving the feedback in a way that’s as loving and direct as possible and making a space to support that person when they receive it, that’s what I would suggest.

Jenn: So, if somebody that we’re close to is worried about how happy we’re feeling and they feel responsible for it like you said, how do we let them know in a kind way that we’re happy where we are and that they should be watering their own grass, not ours?

Lisa: I think empathy is probably the way to go there, you know, and just say, I know it’s hard and just to make a space for other people to have different perspectives.

You know because we’re not responsible for how we feel, but it’s, you know, if being a kind person is part of your best self, right? It’s making a space, empathizing. And empathizing means, right?

Not talking about like, oh, at least it’s this, you know, and it’s not sympathy either, it’s not really like feeling bad for someone, but it’s about allowing yourself to really recognize this person’s sadness, right?

And recognize this person’s struggle and feeling it. Feeling with them, right? Not for them, but feeling with them. And I think that that’s what I would do there, Jenn.

Jenn: So, we’ve got time for one more question.

Lisa: Great.

Jenn: It’s kind of a big one but.

Lisa: Okay, end with a big one?

Jenn: How can I shift my focus from what’s everyday mundane, stressful things in my life to just be more gratitude based and happier?

Lisa: That’s a great question. And practicing gratitude is such a huge thing. And I think that the answer is in part in the question. It’s first of all noticing I’m focusing on all of this stuff, right?

And once you notice that, just that act of noticing that that’s what you’re doing opens up the ability to choose what do you do next? And practicing gratitude for someone. And one way that’s a really lovely way to do this, right?

Gratitude journals are one thing, but doing a loving kindness, meditation, right? To the people that you are grateful for in your life, or people you care about who might be far away and loving kindness meditations is a really beautiful practice.

Simply, it’s almost like a prayer, like it’s non-secular I don’t think it’s associated with any religion or anything like that. It’s just a simple act of sending out positive wishes to the people who you care about like may you be safe.

May you be healthy. May you know joy. May you know love. You know, and whatever words you want to add to it and just kind of with each out-breath kind of like visualizing that person and sending out these wishes.

And it’s a really lovely practice especially when you feel, you know, we can’t see each other really except for Zoom.

And it’s getting a little better, some of us are getting vaccinated and we’re starting to kind of get out of our homes but that’s something that we can do, yeah. That’s something that we can do to help us connect too. That’s a really lovely practice.

Jenn: And I think that is probably the best way that we could have ended the session possibly. So, Lisa, thank you so much…

Lisa: Very welcome.

Jenn: For joining me.

Lisa: It’s so nice to see you.

Jenn: It is always a pleasure. You always make my workdays happier so thank you. And thank you to everybody who joined, this actually concludes the session.

I hope you have all learned something valuable and implementable about ways to craft joy in your own life.

And until next time, be nice to one another, be nice to yourselves and please wash your hands. Thank you so much.

Lisa: Be well everybody, bye.

Jenn: Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.

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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.

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