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How Our Delusions Keep Us Sane: The Psychology of Our Essential Self-Enhancement Bias

How Our Delusions Keep Us Sane: The Psychology of Our Essential Self-Enhancement Bias

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4 Simple Ways to Replace Hostility with Equanimity

4 Simple Ways to Replace Hostility with Equanimity

Equanimity is the key to maintaining healthy social connections.
 
 

“Equanimity means to “maintain mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” Are there certain people or situations that trigger anger, rage, and make it difficult for you to keep your cool? Equanimity is the antidote for burning bridges with people.

We all have co-workers, in-laws or friends-of-friends with whom there is going to be friction. As parents, it’s especially important to practice equanimity with our children. The most challenging situations for me to practice equanimity are when a backstabber tries to slander my character or intentions. Have you lost a friendship, romantic partner or a connection to a family member due to a lack of equanimity and saying something so hurtful that you could never take it back? 

Some people allow a need to feel powerful or superior to drive them to cut others down in an attempt to build themselves up. Don’t feed into it by trying to undermine them in return. Equanimity is always the best response when someone gossips or says nasty things about you. Let their negativity roll off your back like it is teflon coated and covered with Crisco.

If you let yourself slide into the mud pit and start combating someone’s hostile actions or words with more petty hostility you will only add fuel to the fire of negativity. Equanimity is always the best solution for interpersonal confilcts or haters. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Equanimity is one of the Four Noble truths of Buddhism. The idea of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are the golden rules of most religions. But practicing equanimity is secular. It’s also common sense. If you want to succeed in life, equanimity is going to take you a lot farther than hostility. Learning to not be emotionally reactive when you feel undermined or attacked takes a lot of restraint and practice.

Below are 4 very simple tricks you can use to defuse your anger and replace hostility with equanimity in the heat of the moment.

4 Simple Ways to Maintain Equanimity

1. REMEMBER THAT EQUANIMITY IS KEY AND ALWAYS PREVAILS. The first trick to achieving equanimity is simply to keep the concept of equanimity in the front of your mind — especially when someone pushes your buttons and you feel a physiological ‘rage response’ kicking in. We all know the feeling of anger taking over your body and making your mind spin out of control … your breathing becomes more shallow, your heart begins to race, you feel pressure build behind your eyes, the veins in your temples start to pulse… Never say or do anything hostile or negative in this biological state.

The rush of adrenaline and other hormones is the fight-or-flight response kicking in from your sympathetic nervous sytem. Equanimity, on the other hand, triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and triggers a ‘tend-and-befriend’ biological state and puts the brakes on the fight-or-flight response.

Whenever you feel the fight-or-flight alarm system begin to sound. Stop. Take a breath and tag it as a cue or red flag that reminds you that now is a time that you need to bring your equanimity A-game. You can consciously flick your equanimity switch into the ‘on’ and locked position and get through just about any situation with evenness of mind.

I know that keeping your cool when someone really pushes your buttons takes a ton of mental willpower and mindfulness. Learning how-to practice equanimity takes work, but it is always in everyone’s best interest.

2. BREATHE, RECITE AN EQUANIMITY MANTRA, AND CALMLY WALK AWAY. Focus on your breathing and neutral things in the environment while reciting an ‘Equanimity mantra’, counting to ten and then coaching yourself in the third person.

When talking to myself in the 3rd person I would say something like: “Keep cool, Christopher … Equanimity is key … Breathe … Relax the back of your eyes …Take another deep breath … Breathe … Equanimity is key … Don’t say anything mean.” If I am unable to walk away calmly from the situation, I will recite words like this as a mantra until I feel my biological response to feeling angry simmer down.

Using your first name in the 3rd person as part of an inner-dialogue is a highly effective way to maximize the power of self-talk. You should talk to yourself in the 3rd person anytime you need to coach yourself towards a target behavior. I learned this trick doing ultra-endurance sports, but it works in life too.

3. VISUALIZE YOUR VAGUS NERVE, BREATHE, AND LET IT GO. Some people thrive on conflict and drama. Often times people will push your buttons intentionally hoping to provoke a reaction. I can think of a few people who are really good at pushing my buttons and getting under my skin, can you? The beauty of making equanimity your primary coping mechanism for conflict resolution is that it breaks the nasty cycle of hate and violence that can spiral out of control and destroys social connectivity.

Both of my parents had a tough time practicing equanimity in their marriage. Watching them fight endlessly made me determined to break that cycle in my relationships by using equanimity. I have a few friends who have really bad tempers. People say and do stupid things when our bodies are pumping with too much adrenaline, testosterone, and cortisol.

Your vagus nerve is there to calm you down. You can engage your vagus nerve simply by taking a few deep breaths while visualizing it squirting acetylcholine (vagusstuff) on your heart to slow down your heart rate and squelch the ‘fight-or-flight’ response of your sympathetic nervous system.

For more on the vagus nerve and tips for creating equanimity please check out my Psychology Today blog: “The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure.” 

4. PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AND MEDITATION ARE PATHWAYS TO EQUANIMITY. Everyone needs an outlet to stop cortisol from building up and to work through the dynamics of a conflict so that it can be resolved in a way that advances healthy, loving social connections. I find that aerobic exercise, yoga or lifting weights are all very effective ways to release the build up of anger that can fester when you bite your tongue or hold back from fully expressing yourself. Physical activity is a pathway to equanimity, as is any type of meditation.

During a workout you can deconstruct the elements of what happened, let out aggression, and figure out why something upset you. During a jog, bike ride, swim, kick-boxing session, elliptical ride… you can come up with a game plan to resolve conflicts in a magnanimous way.  

Many studies have shown that mindfulness meditation that includes LKM (loving-kindness meditation) can rewire your brain. Practicing LKM is easy. All you have to do is take a few minutes everyday to sit quietly and systematically send loving and compassionate thoughts to: 1) Family and friends. 2) Someone with whom you have tension or a conflict. 3) Strangers around the world who are suffering. 4) Self-compassion, forgiveness and self-love to yourself.

Doing this simple 4-step LKM practice literally rewires your brain by engaging neural connections linked to empathy. You can literally feel the tumblers in your brain shift and open up to empathy by spending just a few minutes going through this systematic LKM practice.

Conclusion: Make Equanimity Your Golden Rule

Taking a few long, slow deep breaths and literally counting to 10 is the best way to kickstart equanimity. Yes, it takes mental toughness to be nice sometimes. Especially when someone is attacking or judging you. But, evolution does not reward mean and selfish people — nor does modern day-to-day life. Sometimes you feel disempowered when you ‘turn the other cheek,’ but equanimity will always prevail. Hate and hostility will eat you up from the inside and out and sabotage your social connections which are the most important thing in life for your well-being. 

The goal of practicing equanimity is to avoid the backlash of adrenaline ortestosterone driven ”rage attacks” that destroy human connection and trust. Once your biological response has returned to a neutral state of homeostasis you can revisit the situation either in writing or in a face-to-face conversation on neutral turf. Never try to resolve a conflict via text messaging or voicemail. 

Equanimity is not about being a doormat or suppressing your emotions. Jackie Robinson was a perfect example of what I call ‘ferocious equanimity.’ If you’d like to read more on this please check out my Psychology Today blog, “The Guts Enough Not to Fight Back.”  

Equanimity is the most important state of mind to maintain when interacting with people who rub you the wrong way or push your buttons. The next time someone really gets under your skin and you want to lash out take a deep breath and try these 4 simple ways to replace that hostility with equanimity. You’ll be glad you did.”

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Urban trees save hundreds of lives and billions of dollars each year in the U.S.

Urban trees save hundreds of lives and billions of dollars each year in the U.S.

“A new study by the USDA’s Forest Service tells us what all good treehuggers already knew; trees are good for you, especially if you live in a urban area. While it’s impossible to know exactly what benefits the urban trees bring us – including many psychological ones – the researchers have tried to estimate their impact using computer simulations. Results: About 850 lives are saved each year, the number of acute respiratory symptoms is lower by about 670,000 incidents each year, and the total health care savings attributed to pollution removal by trees is around $7 billion a year. Not bad!”

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Rethinking the Placebo Effect: How Our Minds Actually Affect Our Bodies

 

“In 2013, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a mind-bending debate on the nature of “nothing” – an inquiry that has occupied thinkers since the dawn of recorded thought and permeates everything from Hamlet’s iconic question to the boldest frontiers of quantum physics. That’s precisely what New Scientist editor-in-chief Jeremy Webb explores with a kaleidoscopic lens in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion(public library) – a terrific collection of essays and articles exploring everything from vacuum to the birth and death of the universe to how the concept of zero gained wide acceptance in the 17th century after being shunned as a dangerous innovation for 400 years. As Webb elegantly puts it, “nothing becomes a lens through which we can explore the universe around us and even what it is to be human. It reveals past attitudes and present thinking.”

Among the most intensely interesting pieces in the collection is one by science journalist Jo Marchant, who penned the fascinating story of the world’s oldest analog computer. Titled “Heal Thyself,” the piece explores how the way we think about medical treatments shapes their very real, very physical effects on our bodies – an almost Gandhi-like proposition, except rooted in science rather than philosophy. Specifically, Marchant brings to light a striking new dimension of the placebo effect that runs counter to how the phenomenon has been conventionally explained. She writes:

It has always been assumed that the placebo effect only works if people are conned into believing that they are getting an actual active drug. But now it seems this may not be true. Belief in the placebo effect itself – rather than a particular drug – might be enough to encourage our bodies to heal.

She cites a recent study at the Harvard Medical School, in which people with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo and informed that the pills were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.” As Marchant notes, this is absolutely true, in a meta kind of way. What the researchers found was startling in its implications for medicine, philosophy, and spirituality – despite being aware they were taking placebos, the participants rated their symptoms as “moderately improved” on average. In other words, they knew what they were taking wasn’t a drug – it was a medical “nothing” – but the very consciousness of taking something made them experience fewer symptoms.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

This dovetails into recent research confirming what Helen Keller fervently believed by putting some serious science behind the value of optimism. Marchant sums up the findings:

Realism can be bad for your health. Optimists recover better from medical procedures such as coronary bypass surgery, have healthier immune systems and live longer, both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.

It is well accepted that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. Stress – the belief that we are at risk – triggers physiological pathways such as the “fight-or-flight” response, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. These have evolved to protect us from danger, but if switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

What researchers are now realizing is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have a positive effect too – feeling safe and secure, or believing things will turn out fine, seems to help the body maintain and repair itself… Optimism seems to reduce stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It may also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter governs what’s called the “rest-and-digest” response – the opposite of fight-or-flight.

Just as helpful as taking a rosy view of the future is having a rosy view of yourself. High “self-enhancers” – people who see themselves in a more positive light than others see them – have lower cardiovascular responses to stress and recover faster, as well as lower baseline cortisol levels.

Marchant notes that it’s as beneficial to amplify the world’s perceived positivity as it is to amplify our own – something known as our “self-enhancement bias,” a type of self-delusion that helps keep us sane. But the same applies to our attitudes toward others as well – they too can impact our physical health. She cites University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, who has dedicated his career to studying how social isolation affects individuals. Though solitude might be essential for great writing, being alone a special form of art, and single living the defining modality of our time, loneliness is a different thing altogether – a thing Cacioppo found to be toxic:

Being lonely increases the risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, depression and death, whereas people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly and respond better to vaccines. The effect is so strong that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

Marchant quotes another researcher, Charles Raison at Atlanta’s Emory University, who studies mind–body interactions:

It’s probably the single most powerful behavioral finding in the world… People who have rich social lives and warm, open relationships don’t get sick and they live longer.

Marchant points to specific research by Cacioppo, who found that “in lonely people, genes involved in cortisol signaling and the inflammatory response were up-regulated, and that immune cells important in fighting bacteria were more active, too.” Marchant explains the findings and the essential caveat to them:

[Cacioppo] suggests that our bodies may have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in wound healing and bacterial infection. An isolated person would be at greater risk of physical trauma, whereas being in a group might favor the immune responses necessary for fighting viruses, which spread easily between people in close contact.

Crucially, these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people think they are, rather than to the actual size of their social network. That also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, says Cacioppo, because being among hostile strangers can be just as dangerous as being alone. So ending loneliness is not about spending more time with people. Cacioppo thinks it is all about our attitude to others: lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and come to see others as potentially dangerous. In a review of previous studies … he found that tackling this attitude reduced loneliness more effectively than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills.

Illustration by André François for Little Boy Brown, a lovely vintage ode to childhood and loneliness

Paradoxically, science suggests that one of the most important interventions to offer benefits that counter the ill effects of loneliness has to do with solitude – or, more precisely, regimented solitude in the form of meditation. Marchant notes that trials on the effects of meditation have been small – something I find troublesomely emblematic of the short-sightedness with which we approach mental health as we continue to prioritize the physical in both our clinical subsidies and our everyday lives (how many people have a workout routine compared to those with a meditation practice?); even within the study of mental health, the vast majority of medical research focuses on the effects of a physical substance – a drug of some sort – on the mind, with very little effort directed at understanding the effects of the mind on the physical body.

Still, the modest body of research on meditation is heartening. Marchant writes:

There is some evidence that meditation boosts the immune response in vaccine recipients and people with cancer, protects against a relapse in major depression, soothes skin conditions and even slows the progression of HIV. Meditation might even slow the aging process. Telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, get shorter every time a cell divides and so play a role in aging. Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues showed in 2011 that levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres were higher in people who attended a three-month meditation retreat than in a control group.

As with social interaction, meditation probably works largely by influencing stress response pathways. People who meditate have lower cortisol levels, and one study showed they have changes in their amygdala, a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat.

If you’re intimidated by the time investment, take heart – fMRI studies show that as little as 11 hours of total training, or an hour every other day for three weeks, can produce structural changes in the brain. If you’re considering dipping your toes in the practice, I wholeheartedly recommend meditation teacher Tara Brach, who has changed my life.

But perhaps the most striking finding in exploring how our beliefs affect our bodies has to do with finding your purpose and, more than that, finding meaning in life. The most prominent studies in the field have defined purpose rather narrowly, as religious belief, but even so, the findings offer an undeniably intriguing signpost to further exploration. Marchant synthesizes the research, its criticism, and its broader implications:

In a study of 50 people with advanced lung cancer, those judged by their doctors to have high “spiritual faith” responded better to chemotherapy and survived longer. More than 40 percent were still alive after three years, compared with less than 10 percent of those judged to have little faith. Are your hackles rising? You’re not alone. Of all the research into the healing potential of thoughts and beliefs, studies into the effects of religion are the most controversial.

Critics of these studies … point out that many of them don’t adequately tease out other factors. For instance, religious people often have lower-risk lifestyles and churchgoers tend to enjoy strong social support, and seriously ill people are less likely to attend church.

[…]

Others think that what really matters is having a sense of purpose in life, whatever it might be. Having an idea of why you are here and what is important increases our sense of control over events, rendering them less stressful. In Saron’s three-month meditation study, the increase in levels of the enzyme that repairs telomeres correlated with an increased sense of control and an increased sense of purpose in life. In fact, Saron argues, this psychological shift may have been more important than the meditation itself. He points out that the participants were already keen meditators, so the study gave them the chance to spend three months doing something important to them. Spending more time doing what you love, whether it’s gardening or voluntary work, might have a similar effect on health. The big news from the study, Saron says, is “the profound impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful.”

Philosopher Daniel Dennett was right all along in asserting that the secret of happiness is to “find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Each of the essays in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion is nothing short of fascinating. Complement them with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on the science of “something” and “nothing.”

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June 30, 2014 · 6:51 pm

The Psychology of Your Future Self and How Your Present Illusions Hinder Your Future Happiness

“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

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June 24, 2014 · 6:03 pm

The Backfire Effect: The Psychology of Why We Have a Hard Time Changing Our Minds

by 

“How the disconnect between information and insight explains our dangerous self-righteousness.

On the internet, a giant filter bubble of our existing beliefs, this can run even more rampant — we see such horrible strains of misinformation as climate change denial and antivaccination activism gather momentum by selectively seeking out “evidence” while dismissing the fact that every reputable scientist in the world disagrees with such beliefs. (In fact, the epidemic of misinformation has reached such height that we’re now facing a resurgence of once-eradicated diseases.)

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

McRaney traces the crushing psychological effect of trolling – something that takes an active effort to fight – back to its evolutionary roots:

Have you ever noticed the peculiar tendency you have to let praise pass through you, but to feel crushed by criticism? A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happen is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information that lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something that threatens your beliefs, something that conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing….”

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May 20, 2014 · 6:28 pm

Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

March 27, 2013

By SUSAN DOMINUS

“Just after noon on a Wednesday in November, Adam Grant wrapped up a lecture at the Wharton School and headed toward his office, a six-minute speed walk away. Several students trailed him, as often happens; at conferences, Grant attracts something more like a swarm. Grant chatted calmly with them but kept up the pace. He knew there would be more students waiting outside his office, and he said, more than once, “I really don’t like to keep students waiting.”

Grant, 31, is the youngest-tenured and highest-rated professor at Wharton. He is also one of the most prolific academics in his field, organizational psychology, the study of workplace dynamics. Grant took three years to get his Ph.D., and in the seven years since, he has published more papers in his field’s top-tier journals than colleagues who have won lifetime-achievement awards. His influence extends beyond academia. He regularly advises companies about how to get the most out of their employees and how to help their employees get the most out of their jobs. It is Grant whom Google calls when “we are thinking about big problems we are trying to solve,” says Prasad Setty, who heads Google’s people analytics group. Plenty of people have made piles of money by promising the secrets to getting things done or working a four-hour week or figuring out what color your parachute is or how to be a brilliant one-minute manager. But in an academic field that is preoccupied with the study of efficiency and productivity, Grant would seem to be the most efficient and productive.

When we arrived at Grant’s office on the Philadelphia campus, five students were waiting outside. The first was a student trying to decide between Teach for America and a human-resources job at Google. Grant walked her through some other possibilities, testing her theories about potential outcomes. Although she was aware of the crowd, she seemed to be in no hurry to leave, in part because Grant was so clearly engaged. A second student came in. Then a third. Someone dropped off a bottle of wine to say thank you; another asked for a contact (Grant pledges to introduce his students to anyone he knows or has met, and they shop his LinkedIn profile for just that purpose). For every one of them, Grant seemed to have not only relevant but also scientifically tested, peer-reviewed advice: Studies show you shouldn’t move for location, since what you do is more important than where you do it. Studies show that people who take jobs with too rosy a picture get dissatisfied and quit. If you truly can’t make a decision, consider delegating it to someone who knows you well and cares about you. Is there anything else I can help you with? How else can I help? He was like some kind of robo-rabbi.

Grant might not seem so different from any number of accessible and devoted professors on any number of campuses, and yet when you witness over time the sheer volume of Grant’s commitments, and the way in which he is able to follow through on all of them, you start to sense that something profoundly different is at work. Helpfulness is Grant’s credo. He is the colleague who is always nominating another for an award or taking the time to offer a thoughtful critique or writing a lengthy letter of recommendation for a student — something he does approximately 100 times a year. His largess extends to people he doesn’t even know. A student at Warwick Business School in England recently wrote to express his admiration and to ask Grant how he manages to publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Grant did not think, upon reading that e-mail, I cannot possibly answer in full every such query and still publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Instead, Grant, who often returns home after a day of teaching to an in-box of 200 e-mails, responded, “I’m happy to set up a phone call if you want to discuss!” He attached handouts and slides from the presentation on productivity he gave to the Academy of Management annual conference a few years earlier.

For Grant, helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity. In some sense, he has built a career in professional motivation by trying to unpack the puzzle of his own success. He has always helped; he has always been productive. How, he has wondered for most of his professional life, does the interplay of those two factors work for everyone else?

Organizational psychology has long concerned itself with how to design work so that people will enjoy it and want to keep doing it. Traditionally the thinking has been that employers should appeal to workers’ more obvious forms of self-interest: financial incentives, yes, but also work that is inherently interesting or offers the possibility for career advancement. Grant’s research, which has generated broad interest in the study of relationships at work and will be published for the first time for a popular audience in his new book, “Give and Take,” starts with a premise that turns the thinking behind those theories on its head. The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.

“Give and Take” incorporates scores of studies and personal case histories that suggest the benefits of an attitude of extreme giving at work. Many of the examples — the selfless C.E.O.’s, the consultants who mentor ceaselessly — are inspiring and humbling, even if they are a bit intimidating in their natural expansiveness. These generous professionals look at the world the way Grant does: an in-box filled with requests is not a task to be dispensed with perfunctorily (or worse, avoided); it’s an opportunity to help people, and therefore it’s an opportunity to feel good about yourself and your work. “I never get much done when I frame the 300 e-mails as ‘answering e-mails,’ ” Grant told me. “I have to look at it as, How is this task going to benefit the recipient?” Where other people see hassle, he sees bargains, a little work for a lot of gain, including his own.

The message sounds terrific: Feel good about your work, and get more of it done, and bask in the appreciation of all the people you help along the way. Nice guys can finish first! (Now there’s research to prove it.) But I couldn’t help wondering, as I watched Grant race through his marathon day (even one of his mentors admitted, “He can be exhausting”), about the cost of all this other-directedness. If you are devoted to being available to everyone, all the time, how do you relax? How can you access the kind of creativity that comes from not being on task every waking moment? How do you make time for the more important relationships in your life?

As Grant’s office hours came to an end four and a half hours later, he patiently continued offering help until he finally had to close the door and tell a student to try him by phone; he would squeeze him in on his commute or by e-mail. But he would not say no.

The study of job design in the middle- and late-20th century focused on how to improve the drudge work of manufacturing: Grant is credited with reviving the field, shifting the thinking toward the more modern conditions of a service and knowledge economy. He first realized that his ideas about giving at work might actually yield quantifiable results when he was a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan, and he proposed a study set in a university fund-raising call center. Call centers, even on college campuses, are notoriously unsatisfying places to work. The job is repetitive and can be emotionally taxing, as callers absorb verbal abuse while also facing rejection (the rejection rate at that call center was about 93 percent).

The manager, Howard Heevner, did not have a lot of faith that Grant would be able to motivate his student-employees. He had already tried, in a previous job at a call center, the usual incentives — cash prizes, competitive games — and was generally unimpressed with the results. But Grant had a different idea. When he was an undergraduate at Harvard, he took a job selling advertisements for the travel guide series “Let’s Go,” but he was terrible at it. “I was a pushover,” he says in “Give and Take,” “losing revenues for the company and sacrificing my own commission.” Then he met another undergraduate whose job at “Let’s Go” was helping her pay her way through college. Suddenly the impact of his role became clear to him: without advertising revenues, the company could not make money, which in turn meant it couldn’t provide jobs to students who needed them. With that in mind, he was willing to make a harder sell, to take a tougher line on negotiations. “When I was representing the interests of students, I was willing to fight to protect them,” he writes. It would not be a mass-market psychology book if every anecdote did not have a dramatic ending: Grant eventually sold the largest advertising package in company history and less than a year later, at 19, was promoted to director of advertising sales, overseeing a budget of $1 million.

As a psychology major, Grant always hoped to do a study on the “Let’s Go” staff, in which the books’ editors and writers would meet with or read letters by people whose travels had been enhanced by their work. Would knowing how the books benefited others inspire them to work harder? Now, at the call center, Grant proposed a simple, low-cost experiment: given that one of the center’s primary purposes was funding scholarships, Grant brought in a student who had benefited from that fund-raising. The callers took a 10-minute break as the young man told them how much the scholarship had changed his life and how excited he now was to work as a teacher with Teach for America.

The results were surprising even to Grant. A month after the testimonial, the workers were spending 142 percent more time on the phone and bringing in 171 percent more revenue, even though they were using the same script. In a subsequent study, the revenues soared by more than 400 percent. Even simply showing the callers letters from grateful recipients was found to increase their fund-raising draws.

When Grant went back and talked to the callers about their improvement, many actively discounted the possibility that the brief encounter with a scholarship student helped. “Several of them were stunned,” Grant said. “Their response was, ‘Yeah, I knew I was more effective, but that was because I had more practice,’ or, ‘That was because I had a better alumni pool in that period — I got lucky.’ ” Eventually, having replicated the test five times, Grant was confident that he had eliminated other explanations. It was almost as if the good feelings had bypassed the callers’ conscious cognitive processes and gone straight to a more subconscious source of motivation. They were more driven to succeed, even if they could not pinpoint the trigger for that drive.

The study quickly raised Grant’s profile in his field, partly because it relied on hard data: dollars, as opposed to manager assessments or self-reports. “I don’t know the last time there was a study in our field that had such striking results,” says Stuart Bunderson, a professor of organizational behavior at Washington University. “In terms of an intervention that has practical significance and moves the needle on employee behavior — you don’t see them that often.” The intervention was also a manager’s dream: fast and practically free.

Over the years, Grant has followed up that study with other experiments testing his theories about prosocial motivation — the desire to help others, independent of easily foreseeable payback. In one study, Grant put up two different signs at hand-washing stations in a hospital. One reminded doctors and nurses, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”; another read, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” Grant measured the amount of soap used at each station. Doctors and nurses at the station where the sign referred to their patients used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer.

These studies, two of Grant’s best known, focus on typically worthy beneficiaries: needy students and vulnerable patients. But some of his other research makes the case that prosocial behavior is as applicable in corporate America as it is in a hospital or a university. “Think of it this way,” he said. “In corporate America, people do sometimes feel that the work they do isn’t meaningful. And contributing to co-workers can be a substitute for that.”

Take, for example, Grant’s study of workers at Borders who contributed to an employee-beneficiary fund managed by the staff, with Borders matching donated funds. The money was set aside for employees in need — someone facing a pregnancy that would put a strain on their finances, for example, or the funeral of a loved one. Interestingly, Grant found that it was not the beneficiaries who showed the most significant increase in their commitment to Borders; it was the donors, even those who gave just a few dollars a week. Through interviews and questionnaires, Grant determined that “as a result of gratitude to the company for the opportunity to affirm a valued aspect of their identities, they developed stronger affective commitment to the company.”

The study is uplifting and troubling at the same time: even Grant acknowledges the possibility of corporations playing off their employees’ generous impulses, as a sop to compensate for other failings — poor pay or demeaning work. (After all, if the employees at Borders had better benefits and pay, they might not have needed the emergency fund.) Jerry Davis, a management professor who taught Grant at the University of Michigan and is generally a fan of his former student’s work, couldn’t help making a pointed critique about its inherent limits when they were on a panel together: “So you think those workers at the Apple factory in China would stop committing suicide if only we showed them someone who was incredibly happy with their iPhone?”

Grant’s answer to these questions is academic: he tries to understand how these mechanisms function but does not necessarily advocate implementation. “I am also skeptical about the motivations of corporations,” he said. “My concern is ultimately for the success and well-being of people in organizations. To the extent that individual and group accomplishments and quality of work life contribute to profits, I’m happy, but that’s not my primary goal.”

For all his general interest in psychology, Grant doesn’t seem interested in digging too deeply into the origins of his own psyche. About his all-consuming desire to help, he says simply: “My mother has what she calls the fix-it gene. Maybe I just inherited it.”

He grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, raised by a lawyer, his father, and a teacher, his mother. He was an upbeat boy, though socially awkward and burdened by numerous food allergies and strong aversions — to haircuts, to bluejeans, to chocolate. He felt things deeply; those aversions were matched by equally consuming passions. An aspiring basketball player, he would not allow himself to go inside until he made 23 consecutive free throws, even if it meant missing dinner. (That he never made the high-school team is the one failure that still pains him.) On weekends, he played video games for so many consecutive hours — 10 was not unusual — that his mother called the local paper to complain about what the paper called, in the subsequent article, “The Dark Side of Nintendo.”

Grant started significantly losing his hair in his 20s, as if his head were trying to keep pace with his overall precociousness. Now almost entirely bald, he has a striking, monklike look. Though he comes across as charming and agreeable, there are still traces of the awkward boy he says he once was, a hint of discomfort in the smile he gives a student he runs into unexpectedly, a longstanding dread of parties (“unless they like psychology or magic tricks, in which case I’d come alive,” he said). He is aware of his own introverted tendencies, and some of his research involves the strengths of introverts at work.

For the most part, Grant has more than compensated for the shyness he felt growing up. Once phobic about speaking in public, he forced himself to lecture as much as he could as a graduate student, handing out feedback forms so he could methodically learn from his weaknesses. He developed strategies for socializing comfortably, even though, he said, “I feel uncomfortable when I’m in a situation and I don’t know what people want or expect of me.” Giving, he eventually realized, was a reliable way of mediating social interactions.

On the day I followed Grant as he hurried to his office hours at Wharton, I read something on his face that registered as more than just busyness; he seemed anxious. I wondered whether Grant was driven by the desire to help or a deep fear of disappointing someone.

“That is one astute observation!” Grant said when I asked him about that by e-mail. (With Grant, every observation is an astute one.) Grant often starts his research with observations about himself — “me-search,” they call it in the field — and he had conducted a study trying to determine which of those two impulses was more motivating. The answer turned out to be a combination of the two. “Givers motivate themselves to avoid complacency by focusing on the benefits to others if they succeed and worrying about disappointing them if they fail,” Grant wrote.

One of Grant’s roommates, he went on, once joked that he had a productive form of O.C.D. “He noticed that when I was anxious about something, I had a habit of throwing myself single-mindedly into tasks in which I felt responsible to others,” he said. “A few days later, my mentor, Brian Little, sent me an article by Ian McGregor, one of his doctoral students, who studied ‘compensatory conviction’: anxiety in one domain motivates people to dive into passionate pursuit in another. It was one of those crystallizing moments that triggered a ‘Yes, I want to be a psychologist!’ reaction — I was fascinated by how closely his theory and findings mapped onto my own experience.”

It’s not hard to imagine a pop-psych interpretation of Adam Grant: that his generosity might have its roots in some kind of need — maybe a need he feels, even more than the rest of us, to be liked. Or perhaps that he is channeling his extreme ambition into a feel-good form of achievement. Productive and happy, Grant could even be seen as a paradigm of Freud’s definition of mental health: aggression sublimated into work.

But he has never put much stock in psychoanalysis — if the work is not data-driven, he’s skeptical. “I think a lot of it is baggage that goes back to Freud, and Freud would always say that whatever is going on with you can be traced back to something that happened early in childhood with your mother,” he told me, by phone, as he was driving to work one day. “You can either accept that or be in denial. You can’t win!” He would rather simply understand himself as someone who gets a lot out of giving, then harness that feeling, study it and see how the mechanisms involved can inspire others to succeed.

One night Grant forwarded me a grateful e-mail from a student whose life, the student said, changed because of some advice Grant gave her. I commented that most people would be thrilled to receive one note like that in a lifetime. “I get several dozen a week,” Grant said. He agreed to send some my way. That evening, at around 8:30, the e-mails started coming —Thank you for our conversation the other day and for your genius. . . . I couldn’t have done this without you. . . . I cannot thank you enough for your time and insight. . . . I’m thrilled. And I have you to thank. . . . After the first 10, I was impressed; when they kept arriving, I was surprised. On and on, until almost 11, my e-mail kept pinging; when I awoke the next morning, I saw that he had forwarded me 41 e-mails from the preceding week, each one of them numbered for my convenience.

Was this compulsive behavior? “Not really,” Grant said. “I would see it as goal-oriented and focused.” He said the question had generated a new research idea for him: “How Prosocial Behavior Can Mitigate O.C.D. Tendencies.”

Grant’s book, incorporating several decades of social-science research on reciprocity, divides the world into three categories: givers, matchers and takers. Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders. Much of Grant’s book sets out to establish the difference between the givers who are exploited and those who end up as models of achievement. The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying. (Grant incorporates his field’s findings into his own life with methodical rigor: one reason he meets with students four and a half hours in one day rather than spreading it out over the week is that a study found that consolidating giving yields more happiness.)

The studies are elaborate, the findings nuanced — but it is easy to walk away from the book forgetting the cautionary tales about people who give too much and remembering only the wash of stories about boundless generosity resulting in surprising rewards: a computer programmer who built a Web site at no cost for music fans (one of whom turns out to be an influential figure in Silicon Valley); a financial adviser who travels to take on a client thought to be impoverished (only to find that person sitting on a significant fortune); the writers who start out working free on a project for a friend (and somehow end up among the most successful in Hollywood).

I had assumed that Grant, and the other examples of extreme givers in his book, were simply superhuman in one way or another — not only in the acute empathy that makes giving so rewarding for them but also in their unusual focus and stamina and mental-processing speed, traits that allow them to bend time and squeeze in more generosity than the rest of us. Grant, clearly, has some advantages beyond his propensity to help: more than one of his colleagues told me, for example, that when they cannot find the citation for a particular paper, they simply e-mail Grant directly, who is more reliable than Google and almost as fast (his childhood friends called him Mr. Facts).

But Grant believes that in terms of giving, we all have the same muscle; it’s just that he and the other givers in his book have exercised it more. In “Give and Take,” he cites a study that found that most people lose physical strength after enduring a test of will, like resisting chocolate-chip cookies when they are hungry. Typically, the study’s subjects could squeeze a handgrip for only 25 seconds after an exercise in willpower. But one group distinguished itself, squeezing the grip for 35 seconds after the test of will. They were people who were on the giving end of the other-directedness scale. “By consistently overriding their selfish impulses in order to help others, they had strengthened their psychological muscles, to the point where using willpower for painful tasks was no longer exhausting,” writes Grant of the study, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University. It seems too simple to assume that Grant just happens to be capable of great discipline across all facets of his life; all those exercises in will, he would argue, feed each other, with one making the others possible.

I like to think I am a typically helpful person, but after reading Grant’s book, I found myself experimenting with being more proactive about it. I started ending e-mails by encouraging people to let me know if I could help them in one way or another. I put more effort into answering random entreaties from students trying to place articles. I encouraged contacts seeking work or connections to see me as a resource.

And I did notice that simply avoiding the mental lag of deciding whether to help or not was helpful. At a minimum, Grant’s example presents a bright-line rule: Unless the person on the other end is a proven taker, just do it — collaborate, offer up, grant the favor.

The first time I exchanged those e-mails, I usually felt good; after the second exchange on a given topic, I thought perhaps I had done my duty. But I noticed that every offer of help I initiated or granted engendered four or five e-mails, at the end of which I sometimes felt surly and behind on my work — and then guilty for feeling that way. Worse, those exchanges often even ended with the person on the other end wanting to meet for coffee. Coffee! Now I struggled to find a way to say, gracefully, that there was no way I could meet for coffee — not this week or next or the week after that, because there are only so many hours in the day, and if I do not get home in time to make dinner, my children will dine on Pirate’s Booty and Smarties, which would not make me feel helpful or productive or good.

Children. It must be said that in the middle of a national debate about flexible hours and telecommuting, there is precious little in Grant’s book about work and family balance. The division of labor in Grant’s own marriage is very traditional; his wife, who has a degree in psychiatric nursing, does not work outside the home, devoting her time to the care of their two young daughters and their home. Grant would be an extraordinary giver under any circumstances; but it can only help that he doesn’t have to worry about running to the grocery store or renewing the car registration.

“Sometimes I tell him, ‘Adam — just say no,’ ” his wife, Allison, told me, referring to the hundreds of requests he gets every day. “But he can’t say no. That’s what he is. That’s his way.”

Grant is devoted to his family — he has dinner most nights at home and takes his daughter to a preschool activity on many afternoons. But he also works at least one full day on the weekend, as well as six evenings a week, often well past 11. Once, when Grant was asked to give a talk on productivity, he confessed to a mentor that for all his research, he was still not sure what he did that was any different from anyone else. It wasn’t exactly a mystery, his mentor told him: He worked more. “I made a commitment to talk about that more,” Grant said. He did not mean to suggest that everyone should work on weekends; he wanted them to be aware that they were making a choice, maybe even one they felt good about.

“The way I see it, I have several different roles,” he told me: teacher, scholar, adviser, friend, to name a few. “I’d be concerned if any of those roles took more of my time than my family.” Grant, of course, has conducted a study investigating whether giving behaviors at work translate into happiness at home. He found that people who felt they had contributed to others’ well-being at work did not always feel great at the end of the workday; but they usually did by bedtime, especially if they had reflected about their contribution in the intervening hours. It turns out that bringing your work home with you can be beneficial after all — if you’re thinking about it the right way.

A skeptic might read Grant’s book and conclude that extreme givers are just matchers who are in it, maybe even subconsciously, for the long run. Eventually, in ways that are predictable and unpredictable, the bounty returns to them. Grant’s giving instincts might be reflexive, but they do clearly contribute to his success. “The entire world feels like it owes him a favor — including me,” says Justin Berg, a doctoral candidate who studies creativity at Wharton and who has collaborated with Grant. “People rush at the opportunity to work with him.” And one round of giving enables another: when Grant calls on a work contact and asks her to meet with an undergraduate seeking work, chances are that contact is more than happy to enable Grant’s favor, because she has already been the beneficiary of more than one from him herself. The path to success is filled with people helping to clear the way.

From the point of creativity, Grant’s undiscriminating helpfulness also reaps professional benefits, Berg says. “The best ideas occur to people who are touching multiple worlds and domains. And in our field, he’s at the nexis of a lot of them.”

Because one study found that old friends and connections can be even more valuable as resources than current ones — because they intersect with different worlds and therefore have more fresh ideas — Grant has a tickler built into his calendar reminding him, once a month, to get in touch with a contact he likes but with whom he has temporarily lost touch. And he is highly efficient about his giving: he virtually never says no to the five-minute favor, something that will help someone out — an introduction, a quick suggestion — but cost him very little, relative to impact.

We were sitting in Grant’s office one afternoon talking about efficiency, when he said: “The truth is, I don’t care how many articles I publish or how many words I write. Productivity is an imperfect way of indexing how much I’m contributing, how I’m using my limited time to make the most difference.”

It wasn’t until I was transcribing the conversation a few days later that I realized that when he referred to his limited time, he wasn’t just talking about a busy schedule; there was a more existential tug in the phrase. I brought it up with him by phone.

“It’s the kind of thing I almost never talk about,” Grant said. “But my responsibility is to be open.” Mortality, he said, was the one subject that gave him something like panic attacks. He had always felt that way, since he was a brainy, sensitive kid playing basketball in his driveway, staring at the sun, suddenly terrified of what would happen when it burned out. That was why he first wanted to be a scientist — before he realized biology bored him and he would never reinvent physics — so he could help figure out how to extend life, or at least design the spacecrafts that he is sure, even now, will take us to safer planets if this one runs dry. Mortality, he said, is “something I can’t fix. I can’t do anything with or about it.” He can’t let himself think about it too much; he has lost days at a time to his anxiety, “to the point that it’s the equivalent of extreme physical pain.”

It struck Grant as odd that no one had ever tried to figure how the awareness of death motivates people’s behavior at work, and in 2009, he published a paper trying to understand the link between mortality and productivity: “The Hot and Cool of Death Awareness at Work: Mortality Cues, Aging and Self-Protective and Prosocial Motivations.” The study walks the reader through the fascinating field of death awareness, which measures how people respond to reminders of death, like a news clip about a deadly car crash. When and how, he asked, does the prospect of death become relevant to employees at work? Grant argued that when people’s reactions to reminders of death are “hot” — anxious and panicked — those workers tend to withdraw. But when they are “cool” — more reflective, as in response to chronic reminders, the kinds, for example, firefighters face — those workers would be more likely to “reflect on the meaning of life and their potential contributions.”

Grant wrote the paper, in part, to try to sort out his own hot and cool feelings on the subject. Contemplating the meaning of life doesn’t make him want to relax and work less. “I always go back to William James,” he said. “ ‘The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.’ A big part of it is being remembered.” Besides, relaxing stresses him out. “For me, in my moments of idleness, I experience the most existential anxiety, so I like that every moment is scheduled, even when it’s having on my calendar that I’m going to watch a television show with my wife. It means my brain is engaged in other things, and it’s not going to be a terrifying evening.”

Grant would be the first to say that he is not purely altruistic — that pure altruism, giving without regard for one’s self-interest, perhaps does not even exist. When he writes those 100 student recommendations, he says, he gets the satisfaction of helping them succeed. But there are other happy byproducts of that work as well: he might end up the beneficiary of those students’ good will later on and possibly inspire them to try to do right by those who will eventually ask them for help. He will also have kept himself busy enough that he won’t have much time to spend agonizing over what happens when he can’t give anymore.

As he left the office after one of our meetings, Grant headed for his car, carrying another gift of gratitude: a twiggy box filled with organic jellies and dried fruit from the Environmental Defense Fund, to which he had recently spoken about how to motivate their fund-raisers.

On the way to the garage, Grant told me the story of a time that someone asked quite a lot from him. “So I got an e-mail out of the blue from a recent Ph.D. who wanted career advice,” Grant said. “And I spoke to him for a while on the phone — twice. But then, after that, he asks me if I could give him comments on his dissertation, and he sends me this thing that was like 300 pages long. It was one of those moments — yikes!”

Grant did not know this academic and was not an expert on the subject. This, I thought, was the long-awaited last straw, an occasion when Grant not only said no but also perhaps found the request itself galling. Surely he did not shun his family, his students, his ultimate Frisbee game, his research and his never-ending list of e-mail requests for the hours that it would have taken him to analyze a 300-page dissertation. Even Adam Grant must say no sometimes.

Grant said that he rarely feels resentful of such requests. “It’s on me if I want to say no,” he said. “I own my guilt.”

He did decide that in this case, the time it would take to read the paper would be excessive — and that indulging the impulse to read it all would be tantamount, in the logic of Grant’s thinking, to letting himself down, flouting his own rules of efficient giving.

“So I just skimmed it for the most important parts,” he said, and gave general feedback on those points. The author then reworked the paper completely and sent it back to Grant to read again. Grant, of course, complied.

“And guess what?” Grant said, breaking out in a smile. “The paper was great!”

Susan Dominus is a staff writer for the magazine. She last wrote about the actress Connie Britton.

Editor: Lauren Kern

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April 1, 2013 · 5:36 pm

Successful and Schizophrenic

By ELYN R. SAKS

Published: January 25, 2013

LOS ANGELES

“THIRTY years ago, I was given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My prognosis was “grave”: I would never live independently, hold a job, find a loving partner, get married. My home would be a board-and-care facility, my days spent watching TV in a day room with other people debilitated by mental illness. I would work at menial jobs when my symptoms were quiet. Following my last psychiatric hospitalization at the age of 28, I was encouraged by a doctor to work as a cashier making change. If I could handle that, I was told, we would reassess my ability to hold a more demanding position, perhaps even something full-time.

Then I made a decision. I would write the narrative of my life. Today I am a chaired professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. I have an adjunct appointment in the department of psychiatry at the medical school of the University of California, San Diego, and am on the faculty of the New Center for Psychoanalysis. The MacArthur Foundation gave me a genius grant.

Although I fought my diagnosis for many years, I came to accept that I have schizophrenia and will be in treatment the rest of my life. Indeed, excellent psychoanalytic treatment and medication have been critical to my success. What I refused to accept was my prognosis.

Conventional psychiatric thinking and its diagnostic categories say that people like me don’t exist. Either I don’t have schizophrenia (please tell that to the delusions crowding my mind), or I couldn’t have accomplished what I have (please tell that to U.S.C.’s committee on faculty affairs). But I do, and I have. And I have undertaken research with colleagues at U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. to show that I am not alone. There are others with schizophrenia and such active symptoms as delusions and hallucinations who have significant academic and professional achievements.

Over the last few years, my colleagues, including Stephen Marder, Alison Hamilton and Amy Cohen, and I have gathered 20 research subjects with high-functioning schizophrenia in Los Angeles. They suffered from symptoms like mild delusions or hallucinatory behavior. Their average age was 40. Half were male, half female, and more than half were minorities. All had high school diplomas, and a majority either had or were working toward college or graduate degrees. They were graduate students, managers, technicians and professionals, including a doctor, lawyer, psychologist and chief executive of a nonprofit group.

At the same time, most were unmarried and childless, which is consistent with their diagnoses. (My colleagues and I intend to do another study on people with schizophrenia who are high-functioning in terms of their relationships. Marrying in my mid-40s — the best thing that ever happened to me — was against all odds, following almost 18 years of not dating.) More than three-quarters had been hospitalized between two and five times because of their illness, while three had never been admitted.

How had these people with schizophrenia managed to succeed in their studies and at such high-level jobs? We learned that, in addition to medication and therapy, all the participants had developed techniques to keep their schizophrenia at bay. For some, these techniques were cognitive. An educator with a master’s degree said he had learned to face his hallucinations and ask, “What’s the evidence for that? Or is it just a perception problem?” Another participant said, “I hear derogatory voices all the time. … You just gotta blow them off.”

Part of vigilance about symptoms was “identifying triggers” to “prevent a fuller blown experience of symptoms,” said a participant who works as a coordinator at a nonprofit group. For instance, if being with people in close quarters for too long can set off symptoms, build in some alone time when you travel with friends.

Other techniques that our participants cited included controlling sensory inputs. For some, this meant keeping their living space simple (bare walls, no TV, only quiet music), while for others, it meant distracting music. “I’ll listen to loud music if I don’t want to hear things,” said a participant who is a certified nurse’s assistant. Still others mentioned exercise, a healthy diet, avoiding alcohol and getting enough sleep. A belief in God and prayer also played a role for some.

One of the most frequently mentioned techniques that helped our research participants manage their symptoms was work. “Work has been an important part of who I am,” said an educator in our group. “When you become useful to an organization and feel respected in that organization, there’s a certain value in belonging there.” This person works on the weekends too because of “the distraction factor.” In other words, by engaging in work, the crazy stuff often recedes to the sidelines.

Personally, I reach out to my doctors, friends and family whenever I start slipping, and I get great support from them. I eat comfort food (for me, cereal) and listen to quiet music. I minimize all stimulation. Usually these techniques, combined with more medication and therapy, will make the symptoms pass. But the work piece — using my mind — is my best defense. It keeps me focused, it keeps the demons at bay. My mind, I have come to say, is both my worst enemy and my best friend.

THAT is why it is so distressing when doctors tell their patients not to expect or pursue fulfilling careers. Far too often, the conventional psychiatric approach to mental illness is to see clusters of symptoms that characterize people. Accordingly, many psychiatrists hold the view that treating symptoms with medication is treating mental illness. But this fails to take into account individuals’ strengths and capabilities, leadingmental health professionals to underestimate what their patients can hope to achieve in the world.

It’s not just schizophrenia: earlier this month, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry posted a study showing that a small group of people who were given diagnoses of autism, a developmental disorder, later stopped exhibiting symptoms. They seemed to have recovered — though after years of behavioral therapy and treatment. A recent New York Times Magazine article described a new company that hires high-functioning adults with autism, taking advantage of their unusual memory skills and attention to detail.

I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna about schizophrenia; mental illness imposes real limitations, and it’s important not to romanticize it. We can’t all be Nobel laureates like John Nash of the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” But the seeds of creative thinking may sometimes be found in mental illness, and people underestimate the power of the human brain to adapt and to create.

An approach that looks for individual strengths, in addition to considering symptoms, could help dispel the pessimism surrounding mental illness. Finding “the wellness within the illness,” as one person with schizophrenia said, should be a therapeutic goal. Doctors should urge their patients to develop relationships and engage in meaningful work. They should encourage patients to find their own repertory of techniques to manage their symptoms and aim for a quality of life as they define it. And they should provide patients with the resources — therapy, medication and support — to make these things happen.

“Every person has a unique gift or unique self to bring to the world,” said one of our study’s participants. She expressed the reality that those of us who have schizophrenia and other mental illnesses want what everyone wants: in the words of Sigmund Freud, to work and to love.

Elyn R. Saks is a law professor at the University of Southern California and the author of the memoir “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on January 27, 2013, on page SR5 of the New York edition with the headline: Successful and Schizophrenic.”

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January 27, 2013 · 8:44 pm

A Brief History of the To-Do List and the Psychology of Its Success

by 

“On reconciling the fussy with the fuzzy, or what Benjamin Franklin has to do with Drew Carey.

“The list is the origin of culture,” Umberto Ecofamously proclaimed. (Leonardo da Vinci,John Lennon, and Woody Guthrie would have all agreed.) But the list, it turns out, might also be the origin of both our highest happiness and our dreariest dissatisfaction. So argue New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. While the book is fascinating in general — an unconventional “self-help” tome that, much like Timothy Wilson’s Redirect, grounds its insights and advice in thirty years of serious academic research into willfulness and self-control — its third chapter, titled “A Brief History of the To-Do List, From God to Drew Carey,” is particularly interesting. In it, Tierney and Baumeister dissect the sociocultural anatomy of our favorite organizational tool, from the storytellers who crafted the Bible and wrote the Genesis myth with its six-step world-creation plan, to Benjamin Franklin’s fastidious pursuit of virtue bound by goal-setting lists, to comedian Drew Carey’s quest for supreme personal productivity.

These anecdotes and pieces of cultural mythology are interwoven with ample psychology experiments from the past century and, ultimately, distilled into insight on how to make the to-list a tool of fulfillment rather than frustration.

Franklin, for instance, demonstrated one of the greatest pitfalls of the to-do list: trying to do too much at once, letting different goals come into conflict with one another:

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’

When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients — and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (‘Waste nothing’) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job — or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: ‘Perform without fail what you resolve.’”

The result of conflicting goals, the authors argue, is unhappiness instead of action. But deciding on the right goals can be a daunting task.

Tierney and Baumeister recount a revealing experiment: When a psychologist was invited to give a talk at the Pentagon on managing time and resources, he decided to warm up the elite group of generals with a short writing exercise. He asked them all to write a summary of their strategic approach limited to 25 words.

The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.

The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: ‘First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.’”

Unscrupulous, perhaps, but the authors argue this is a simple version of an important to-do list strategy for reconciling the long-term with the short-term, or “the fussy with the fuzzy.”

Comedian Drew Carey took a different approach to mastering his to-do list — he outsourced his strategy to productivity guru David Allen, author of the cultish, modern Bible Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals. The latter loom in the back of our mind like a nagging mother, never fully silenced until specific actionable steps are taken.

In fact, our brain appears to be wired to nag about unfinished to-do list items as uncompleted tasks and unmet goals continue to pop up into our minds. This is called the Zeigarnik effect and explains phenomena like earworms — when you hear only a portion of song, the song is likely to run through your mind at odd intervals as your brain struggles to finish it. Originally, the Zeigarnik effect was believed to be the brain’s way of ensuring goals are eventually accomplished, by prodding you into urgency until they are. But recent research has shed new light on the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious in our cognitive to-do lists.

[It] turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.”

The moral, then? Unless you are Woody Guthrie, keep your to-do list to a few very specific, actionable, non-conflicting items, then go fly your kite in peace.”

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January 7, 2013 · 5:53 pm

How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes: Lessons in Mindfulness and Creativity from the Great Detective

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““A man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”

“The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts,” wrote James Webb Young in his famous 1939 5-step technique for creative problem-solving“becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.”But just how does one acquire those vital cognitive customs? That’s precisely what science writer Maria Konnikova explores inMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (UKpublic library) — an effort to reverse-engineer Holmes’s methodology into actionable insights that help develop “habits of thought that will allow you to engage mindfully with yourself and your world as a matter of course.”

Bridging ample anecdotes from the adventures of Conan Doyle’s beloved detective with psychology studies both classic and cutting-edge, Konnikova builds a compelling case at the intersection of science and secular spiritualism, stressing the power of rigorous observation alongside a Buddhist-like, Cageianemphasis on mindfulness. She writes:

The idea of mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that, ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. … An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of mindfulness. And the education that James proposes, an education in a mindful approach to life and to thought.

[…]

In recent years, studies have shown that meditation-like thought (an exercise in the very attentional control that forms the center of mindfulness), for as little as fifteen minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive and more approach-oriented emotional states, and that looking at scenes of nature, for even a short while, can help us become more insightful, more creative, and more productive. We also know, more definitively than we ever have, that our brains are not built for multitasking — something that precludes mindfulness altogether. When we are forced to do multiple things at once, not only do we perform worse on all of them but our memory decreases and our general wellbeing suffers a palpable hit.

But for Sherlock Holmes, mindful presence is just a first step. It’s a means to a far larger, far more practical and practically gratifying goal. Holmes provides precisely what William James had prescribed: an education in improving our faculty of mindful thought and in using it in order to accomplish more, think better, and decide more optimally. In its broadest application, it is a means for improving overall decision making and judgment ability, starting from the most basic building block of your own mind.

But mindfulness, and the related mental powers it bestows upon its master, is a skill acquired with grit and practice, rather than an in-born talent or an easy feat attained with a few half-hearted tries:

It is most difficult to apply Holmes’s logic in those moments that matter the most. And so, all we can do is practice, until our habits are such that even the most severe stressors will bring out the very thought patterns that we’ve worked so hard to master.

Echoing Carl Sagan, Konnikova examines the role of intuition — a grab-bag concept embraced by some of history’s greatest scientific mindscultural icons, and philosophers — as both a helpful directional signpost of intellectual inquiry and a dangerous blind spot:

Our intuition is shaped by context, and that context is deeply informed by the world we live in. It can thus serve as a blinder — or blind spot — of sorts, much as it did for Conan Doyle and his fairies. With mindfulness, however, we can strive to find a balance between fact-checking our intuitions and remaining open-minded. We can then make our best judgments, with the information we have and no more, but with, as well, the understanding that time may change the shape and color of that information.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” Holmes famously remarked. Indeed, much like the inventor’s mind, the problem-solver’s mind is the product of that very choice: The details and observations we select to include in our “brain attic” shape and filter our perception of reality. Konnikova writes:

Observation with a capital O — the way Holmes uses the word when he gives his new companion a brief history of his life with a single glance — does entail more than, well, observation (the lowercase kind). It’s not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit? And how do you take in and capture those details that you do choose to zoom in on? In other words, how do you maximize your brain attic’s potential? You don’t just throw any old detail up there, if you remember Holmes’s early admonitions; you want to keep it as clean as possible. Everything we choose to notice has the potential to become a future furnishing of our attics — and what’s more, its addition will mean a change in the attic’s landscape that will affect, in turn, each future addition. So we have to choose wisely.

Choosing wisely means being selective. It means not only looking but looking properly, looking with real thought. It means looking with the full knowledge that what you note — and how you note it — will form the basis of any future deductions you might make. It’s about seeing the full picture, noting the details that matter, and understanding how to contextualize those details within a broader framework of thought.

But while our minds might be wired to wander, argues Konnikova, multitasking is a myth that only detracts from our productivity and intellectual efficiency:

As neurologist Marcus Raichle learned after decades of looking at the brain, our minds are wired to wander. Wandering is their default. Whenever our thoughts are suspended between specific, discrete, goal-directed activities, the brain reverts to a so-called baseline, ‘resting’ state — but don’t let the word fool you, because the brain isn’t at rest at all. Instead, it experiences tonic activity in what’s now known as the DMN, the default mode network: the posterior cingulate cortex, the adjacent precuneus, and the medial prefrontal cortex. This baseline activation suggests that the brain is constantly gathering information from both the external world and our internal states, and what’s more, that it is monitoring that information for signs of something that is worth its attention. And while such a state of readiness could be useful from an evolutionary standpoint, allowing us to detect potential predators, to think abstractly and make future plans, it also signifies something else: our minds are made to wander. That is their resting state. Anything more requires an act of conscious will.

The modern emphasis on multitasking plays into our natural tendencies quite well, often in frustrating ways. Every new input, every new demand that we place on our attention is like a possible predator: Oooh, says the brain. Maybe I should pay attention to that instead. And then along comes something else. We can feed our mind wandering ad infinitum. The result? We pay attention to everything and nothing as a matter of course. While our minds might be made to wander, they are not made to switch activities at anything approaching the speed of modern demands. We were supposed to remain ever ready to engage, but not to engage with multiple things at once, or even in rapid succession.

[…]

Attention is a limited resource. Paying attention to one thing necessarily comes at the expense of another. Letting your eyes get too taken in by all of the scientific equipment in the laboratory prevents you from noticing anything of significance about the man in that same room. We cannot allocate our attention to multiple things at once and expect it to function at the same level as it would were we to focus on just one activity. Two tasks cannot possibly be in the attentional foreground at the same time. One will inevitably end up being the focus, and the other — or others — more akin to irrelevant noise, something to be filtered out. Or worse still, none will have the focus and all will be, albeit slightly clearer, noise, but degrees of noise all the same.

Indeed, that allocation of attention to one thing at the expense of another produces a phenomenon known as “attentional blindness,” wherein our intense focus on a specific element makes us practically blind to all else. But there is hope in training. Konnikova offers:

The Holmes solution? Habit, habit, habit. That, and motivation. Become an expert of sorts at those types of decisions or observation that you want to excel at making. … If you learn first how to be selective accurately, in order to accomplish precisely what it is you want to accomplish, you will be able to limit the damage that System Watson can do by preemptively teaching it to not muck it up. The important thing is the proper, selective training — the presence of mind — coupled with the desire the motivation to master your thought process.

No one says it’s easy. When it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as free attention; it all has to come from somewhere. And every time we place an additional demand on our attentional resources — be it by listening to music while walking, checking our email while working, or following five media streams at once — we limit the awareness that surrounds any one aspect and our ability to deal with it in an engaged, mindful, and productive manner.

Konnikova argues that, not unlike willpower and habit loops, attention is analogous to a muscle that can get strained, but can also be bolstered with training and purposeful repeat use. She goes on to offer four key strategies for optimizing your attention:

  • Be Selective

 

Our vision is highly selective as is — the retina normally captures about ten billion bits per sec of visual information, but only ten thousand bits actually make it to the first layer of the visual cortex, and, to top it off, only 10 percent of the area’s synapses is dedicated to incoming visual information at all. Or, to put it differently, our brains are bombarded by something like eleven million pieces of data — that is, items in our surroundings that come at all of our senses — at once. Of that, we are able to consciously process only about forty. What that basically means is that we ‘see’ precious little of what’s around us, and what we think of as objective seeing would better be termed selective filtering — and our state of mind, our mood, our thoughts at any given moment, our motivation, and our goals can make it even more picky than it normally is.

[…]

Our minds are set [for selective attention] for a reason. It’s exhausting to have the Holmes system running on full all the time — and not very productive, at that. There’s a reason we’re prone to filter out so much of our environment: to the brain, it’s noise. If we tried to take it all in, we wouldn’t last very long. Remember what Holmes said about your brain attic? It’s precious real estate. Tread carefully and use it wisely. In other words, be selective about your attention.

At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive: after all, aren’t we trying to pay attention to more, not less? Yes, but the crucial distinction is between quantity and quality. We want to learn to pay attention better, to become superior observers, but we can’t hope to achieve this if we thoughtlessly pay attention to everything. That’s self-defeating. What we need to do is allocate our attention mindfully. And mindset is the beginning of that selectivity.

 

    1. Be Objective

 

It’s psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s theory about believing what we see taken a step further: we believe what we want to see and what our mind attic decides to see, encode that belief instead of the facts in our brains, and then think that we saw an objective fact when really, what we remember seeing is only our limited perception at the time. We forget to separate the factual situation from our subjective interpretation of it.

[…]

Setting your goals beforehand will help you direct your precious attentional resources properly. It should notbe an excuse to reinterpret objective facts to mesh with what you want or expect to see. Observation and deduction are two separate, distinct steps — in fact, they don’t even come one right after the other.

 

    1. Be Inclusive

 

Attention is about every one of your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. It is about taking in as much as we possibly can, through all of the avenues available to us. It is about learning not to leaveanything out — anything, that is, that is relevant to the goals that you’ve set. And it is about realizing that all of our senses affect us — and will affect us whether 35N or not we are aware of the impact.

To observe fully, to be truly attentive, we must be inclusive and not let anything slide by — and we must learn how our attention may shift without our awareness, guided by a sense that we’d thought invisible.

 

    1. Be Engaged

 

When we are engaged in what we are doing, all sorts of things happen. We persist longer at difficult problems — and become more likely to solve them. We experience something that psychologist Tory Higgins refers to as flow, a presence of mind that not only allows us to extract more from whatever it is we are doing but also makes us feel better and happier: we derive actual, measurable hedonic value from the strength of our active involvement in and attention to an activity, even if the activity is as boring as sorting through stacks of mail. If we have a reason to do it, a reason that engages us and makes us involved, we will both do it better and feel happier as a result. The principle holds true even if we have to expand significant mental effort — say, in solving difficult puzzles. De- spite the exertion, we will still feel happier, more satisfied, and more in the zone, so to speak.

What’s more, engagement and flow tend to prompt a virtuous cycle of sorts: we become more motivated and aroused overall, and, consequently, more likely to be productive and create something of value.

In a section on the importance of distance in creative thinking, Konnikova echoes previous insights on the need for unconscious processing that allows forideas to align:

One of the most important ways to facilitate imaginative thinking is through distance. In ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,’ a case that comes quite late in the Holmes-Watson partnership, Watson observes:

One of the most remarkable characteristics of Sherlock Holmes was his power of throwing his brain out of action and switching all his thoughts on to lighter things whenever he had convinced himself that he could no longer work to advantage. I remember that during the whole of that memorable day he lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus. For my own part I had none of this power of detachment, and the day, in consequence appeared to be interminable.

Forcing your mind to take a step back is a tough thing to do. It seems counterintuitive to walk away from a problem that you want to solve. But in reality, the characteristic is not so remarkable either for Holmes or for individuals who are deep thinkers. The fact that it is remarkable for Watson (and that he self-admittedly lacks the skill) goes a long way to explaining why he so often fails when Holmes succeeds.

Psychologist Yaacov Trope argues that psychological distance may be one of the single most important steps you can take to improve thinking and decision-making. It can come in many forms: temporal, or distance in time (both future and past); spatial, or distance in space (how physically close or far you are from something); social, or distance between people (how someone else sees it); and hypothetical, or distance from reality (how things might have happened). But whatever the form, all of these distances have something in common: they all require you to transcend the immediate moment in your mind. They all require you to take a step back.

[…]

In essence, psychological distance accomplishes one major thing: it engages System Holmes.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes is fascinating from cover to cover — highly recommended.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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January 7, 2013 · 5:02 pm