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Jun 18 16

Michelle Obama on the State of Women

by Beth

Michelle ObamaA few days ago the White House hosted The United State of Women Summit. The day was full of fantastic speakers covering issues including violence against women, health and wellness, education, economic empowerment, entrepreneurship, and leadership. The day ended with Oprah Winfrey interviewing First Lady Michelle Obama. Here are some takeaways:

Know yourself – When asked how she deals with the pressure of living up to other people’s expectations, Michelle said the key is to know yourself. Girls so often try to please others by looking to the world to see who they are expected to be. She thinks one of our most important jobs is to figure out who we really are.

Like yourself – Michelle said she has liked herself for a long time and that has helped her deal with negativity. Believing in your own worth also makes it easier to ask for what you want. Michelle said supportive parents make a big difference, but if you weren’t as lucky as she was there is still hope. Somebody out there is waiting to love you; you just have to find them. To do this you need to get the haters out of your life. If you are surrounded by lowlife folk who don’t support you, there is no room for the people who do love you.

Be yourself – Michelle didn’t read any biographies of past First Ladies because she wanted to define the role for herself. She wanted people to know who she really is. Because she values being authentic, she chose to support issues that she cares deeply about. When you do things that excite you it gives you energy, so it’s not a heavy lift.

Do good work – Another way to handle the haters is to prove them wrong. Michelle said people won’t remember what other people say about you, but they will remember what you do. Her strategy is to wake up everyday and work hard to do something of value and do it well. Good work speaks for itself. She also mentioned how fulfilling she finds public service. There is nothing better than knowing you helped to change someone’s life.

Embrace each phase of life – Michelle thinks having it all is a ridiculous aspiration. There are many phases in life. You may have to make compromises during one phase, but it’s one of many on your journey. Maintain your health so that in the next phase you can do more of what you want to do. I can’t wait to see what Michelle does in her next phase!

Jun 8 16

Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

by Beth

Social comparison 3One of the best things you can do to increase your happiness is to stop making social comparisons. I realize this is easier said than done. We are social creatures who naturally compare ourselves to others. We evaluate our own worth by looking at how it stacks up against others. Are we as smart, attractive, wealthy, successful, happy as they are?

When we compare ourselves with others, the happier they are, the less happy we feel. If they are successful, we, in comparison, feel less successful. Social media has taken this to a whole new level. We are constantly bombarded with images of how wonderfully perfect everyone else’s life is.

You do know people only put the good stuff on Facebook, right? I admit I’m guilty of doing the same. But even though I “know” that the images I see on Facebook don’t represent the whole picture, I can’t help but form this impression that everyone else out there is having more fun than I am. My daughter is still in school right now, but I’m scrolling through pictures of friends who are at the beach, visiting the Tower of London, and taking a gondola ride through Venice. Social media makes it really easy for us to fall into the social comparison trap. That’s why using Facebook increases depression for some people.

Happy people focus on their own internal standards to judge themselves, setting their own goals and celebrating the progress they make. They aren’t constantly comparing themselves to others. They can take pleasure in someone else’s joy, because they don’t see another’s success as their failure.

It’s impossible to completely avoid social comparison. And, personally, I like to keep up with friends and family on Facebook. But you can make an effort to not evaluate your own worth based on what other people have or do. And if looking at all of those smiling faces on social media makes you sad, try to limit the amount of time you spend online.

Pay more attention to your life and less attention to the lives of others. Be grateful for all that you have. There are so many good things in your life. You may miss them if you are focused on others.

May 31 16

Design Offices for Connection and Focus

by Beth

20160528_132943The debate is alive and well. What is the best office design? Open offices are applauded because they provide opportunities for people to interact, encouraging idea exchange and collaboration. The current trend is for companies to adopt open-office spaces in order to enhance innovation and team work. As many as 70% of U.S. offices have no or low partitions.

But what about the need to focus? People working in open offices find it hard to concentrate. There is a growing open-office backlash, with workers complaining that the distractions and noise of open workspaces hurt their performance. So what should companies do?

We just got back from visiting our son in New York City. He has a summer internship with Google and gave us a tour of their offices. Google, a leader in the open-office movement, has large open offices and numerous cafeterias where Googlers interact all day long. They have game rooms, a room full of Legos, and many comfortable lounges where people spend time together, increasing the chances for creative collaboration.

But there are also many private spaces where people can go when they need to minimize distractions in order to focus on their work. The interior halls are full of single person phone rooms equipped with a small desk and computer. They also have breakout spaces with beanbags and comfy chairs (and fun names!) where small groups can work together.

Google understands that magic happens when people share ideas. Their open offices, cafeterias, and lounges encourage employees to connect throughout the day. Google also recognizes the value of having quiet spaces where people can work without distractions. The multi-space design of their offices promotes collaboration, while also providing the space for deep thinking.

Connection and focus contribute to optimal performance. The ideal office design provides a variety of different kinds of spaces that allows for both.

May 11 16

Building Resilience

by Beth

Resilience - after stormResilience is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity. Something we’d all like more of, right? So how can you build your resilience? There are many factors that influence resilience, including social support, positive emotions, coping skills, and physical well-being.

Two additional factors are meaning and hope. When you are pursuing meaningful goals that you believe you can achieve, you are more likely to persist despite setbacks or adversity. You keep going because what you are doing matters and you know it can be done if you try hard enough.

So how do you find meaning and hope? Three sources of meaning in life are contributing to something in order to make a positive impact, connecting with others, and growing as a person. Hopeful people share two key characteristics: they believe they are capable of achieving their goals and they understand that there are multiple pathways to any goal.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • When have I made a positive contribution?
  • When have I helped someone?
  • When have I seen myself progressing towards the person I want to be?
  • When have I experienced myself as a capable person?
  • When have I found another way to make progress in the face of a setback?

Your answer to any of these questions can help you see that you are resilient. Your life is meaningful. What you are doing matters. You have hope. You are capable and adaptable in the face of challenges.

Resilience is a skill you can learn and practice. Make sure that your life continues to have meaning by finding opportunities to contribute, connect, and grow. Keep hope alive by reminding yourself of your successes, looking to role models who have achieved similar goals, and always having a Plan B and C.

Apr 25 16

Prince: A Life Well Lived

by Beth

PrincePeople around the world are still mourning the untimely death of Prince last week. The Eiffel Tower, the Chicago skyline, Niagara Falls, the High Roller in Las Vegas, city halls, bridges, and stadiums were illuminated with purple lights as fellow musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Adam Levine, Elton John, and the cast of ‘Hamilton’ played tributes to a lost legend.

Prince was an incredibly talented, widely influential musician who lived a good life. I say that because of what I have learned about him over the past week. There are two keys to living a good life or thriving: happiness and meaning. Prince seems to have had a good amount of both.

His music clearly made him happy. Prince was one of those lucky people who got to do what he loved for a career. He was passionate about music. He wrote his first song at the age of 7 and never stopped, recording over 40 albums, 8 of which made it to #1 on the Billboard charts. If you watch Prince performing in a downpour at the Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show, the joy he experienced on stage is evident.

Yet the most interesting stories that have come out after his death have not been about his music, but his life as a humanitarian. Prince helped create “Yes We Code” to teach children from poor neighborhoods computer skills so that they could get good jobs. He also gave money to “Green for All” to provide solar panels to people living in Oakland, California.

When Prince gave concerts he often looked for ways he could make a difference in the cities he was visiting. Last May he held a “Rally 4 Peace” benefit concert in Baltimore to raise money for local youth charities. In Washington DC back in the 80’s he gave a surprise, free concert to over 2,500 handicapped students at Gallaudet College. The blind students screamed beside the deaf students who swayed to the vibrations they felt. A few days prior he had attended a reception to raise funds for Big Brothers of America.

Prince left us too soon, but he lived a good life while he was here. He spent his days doing what he loved and serving others. His talent and his generosity will be missed.

Super Bowl XLI Halftime Video

Prince Super Bowl

Apr 11 16

How to Help Your Kids Thrive

by Beth

Happy handsParenting isn’t easy, is it? How can you help your children live their best lives? One thing you can do is to positively influence their self-narratives.

According to Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, the way in which we interpret the world influences our behavior. These interpretations are the result of personal narratives we create about ourselves. Healthy narratives can lead to greater happiness and success in life.

In his book, Redirect, Wilson discusses how story editing can be used to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the world. As parents, we can use this technique to shape our children’s narratives. Here are two different approaches:


Labeling can help kids internalize desired values by providing them with the right label for their behavior. When your child does something wrong, the best way to respond is to say you understand how guilty he or she must feel. This causes children to internalize the motivation to be good. They conclude they must feel guilty because they are good kids who don’t want to do the wrong thing.

Adam Grant explains how we can use labeling to encourage generosity in our children. When we notice them do something nice, instead of saying, “That was really helpful”, we should say, “You were really helpful.” In this way they will come to see themselves as givers. Research found that students whose teacher consistently labeled them as people who don’t litter were less likely to litter than other students.

Story Prompting

With story prompting we give information to people that changes their interpretation of themselves or the word. When your children get good grades you should praise them for their effort. This prompts them to have a growth mindset or the belief that abilities can be developed through hard work. Praising them for being smart can lead to a fixed mindset where they believe abilities are fixed traits that can’t be changed.

What about when your child does poorly on a test? She may conclude she isn’t smart enough for advanced math and quit trying. If instead you talk to her teacher who explains that most students struggle with the first unit, but get better over time, your daughter is more likely to keep studying.

Story editing can trigger a positive cycle of self-reinforcing thinking and behaving. Help your children create constructive self-narratives by labeling their behavior and providing them with story prompts that lead to more empowering interpretations of events.

Mar 28 16

What Story Are You Making Up?

by Beth

Rising StrongBrené Brown has written another great book. Rising Strong provides a 3-step process to help us rise from our falls:

  • The Reckoning is about recognizing your emotions and getting curious about the story behind your feelings.
  • The Rumble is getting honest about the story you’ve made up and figuring out what needs to change.
  • The Revolution is writing a new, more courageous ending that transforms your thoughts and beliefs.

I especially like Brené’s advice regarding The Rumble. She explains how our brains build stories in order to give meaning to our experiences. If a story is incomplete, our brain will fill in the missing information, often making things up that we believe to be true. Our stories can be painful if we describe who we are and how others see us in ways that undermine our value and worth.

One suggestion for rumbling with our stories is to use “the story I’m making up” strategy. We can do this in our head or out loud in a situation that is causing us to feel hurt. Brené gives an example of a meeting she had with her team. The meeting was running long, so she suggested they move one of the items from the middle of the agenda to the end. A team member spoke up to say that the story he was making up was that the item, on which he was spending 70% of his time, was no longer a priority. This gave Brené the chance to explain that the issue was so important she didn’t want to rush through it. She planned to schedule another meeting to give it the time it deserved.

Using “the story I’m making up” is helpful because it starts an inner dialogue, giving you a chance to evaluate what you’re thinking and feeling. This reality check may be enough for you to realize what you are telling yourself isn’t true. It is also a constructive way to start a conversation. Being vulnerable enough to share your feelings lets you speak honestly without putting someone else on the defensive. It gives them the opportunity to fill in the missing information, like Brené did for her team member.

The next time you are feeling hurt, get curious about the story behind your emotions, notice which parts of the story you might be making up, and choose to write a new, more empowering ending.

Mar 10 16

A Simple Trick to Control Your Emotions

by Beth

InsideOutAngryManHave you ever said or done something you regretted because you were emotionally triggered? Haven’t we all? When something upsets us, making us angry or scared, our brain detects it as a threat. When we feel threatened, the part of our brain that controls our emotions, the amygdala, takes over. When the amygdala is activated, the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain in charge of executive functioning, like decision making, is inhibited. That’s why we react without thinking when we are emotionally triggered.

The good news is that there is an amazingly simple, yet effective technique for controlling your emotional reactions. It’s called “affect labeling”. All you have to do is name or label the emotion you are experiencing. Saying “I’m angry” or “I’m scared” is a cognitive process, so it activates your prefrontal cortex. This puts your thinking brain back in charge, so you can choose a better response.

Research using fMRI machines to measure brain activity shows this. When people are asked to label an emotion this reduces amygdala activity, while increasing activation of the prefrontal cortex. Researchers also found that this effect is stronger for people who practice mindfulness meditation. Meditation appears to lower amygdala activation and being mindful helps you to notice and name your emotions.

The next time someone at work makes you mad or one of your children does something that scares you, try to name what you are feeling before doing anything else. It takes just a second to say it or think it and that will immediately reduce your emotional arousal and put your thinking brain back in the driver’s seat. Let me know how it goes!

And for a fun way to learn more about your emotions check out the movie “Inside Out”!

Feb 24 16

Self-Compassion Helps You Achieve Your Goals

by Beth

Self-compassionThis week I taught a class on goal getting for greater well-being to the students who live in George Mason’s Mindful Living Residence. I told them about a number of things that increase the likelihood of achieving our goals, like visualization, breaking your goal into smaller steps, taking action, anticipating obstacles, rewarding yourself for progress, and telling someone about your goal so he or she can support you and hold you accountable.

Afterwards, the students identified a well-being goal and created a plan based on the elements we had discussed. We ended the class talking about how being mindful could help the students stick to their plan. One of the students mentioned that she would use mindfulness to remember to be kind to herself if she slipped up. That’s when I realized I had left out one of the most important elements of goal getting: self-compassion.

Pursuing a goal is a lot like training your attention. We often practice mindfulness meditation by focusing our attention on our breath. When we notice that our thoughts have wandered we gently bring our focus back to our breath. The key is not to beat yourself up because your mind was wandering. That’s OK. It happens to everyone. Just refocus and be kind to yourself.

It is equally important to have self-compassion when pursuing a goal. You will have bad days. You won’t make it to the gym or you’ll eat a piece of cake. That’s OK. It happens to everyone. Don’t get mad at yourself. Just start over. The same way you bring your attention back to your breath.

People who are kind to themselves when they slip up are more likely to keep going. You may think being hard on yourself will improve your self-discipline, but it doesn’t. It erodes your confidence and your motivation. Self-compassion makes you more resilient. Being kind to yourself will help you stick to your goal.

Feb 15 16

Create Your Own Upward Spiral of Well-Being

by Beth

WalkingHow well are you sticking to your New Year’s resolution? If you’ve been trying to do something you don’t enjoy, you probably haven’t kept it up. That’s because willpower alone isn’t enough to change your behavior. In order to create a new habit, whatever you are trying to do must be rewarding.

My father has always been in great physical shape, but I have never in my life seen him on a treadmill or an elliptical machine. When I was young he played basketball. In the 80’s he was a big racquetball player and then he switched to squash. Now he goes on long walks everyday. He loves nature and clearly enjoys the time he spends outside.

This is a great example of what Barbara Fredrickson has discovered from her latest research. She calls it the Upward Spiral Theory of Lifestyle Change. Fredrickson describes a loop where a wellness behavior, like exercising, leads to positive emotions and those emotions create an unconscious motive to engage in that behavior. This means that if something is rewarding we are motivated to do it. Not so surprising.

The interesting part of the theory is that there is a second, outer loop where positive emotions, in addition to motivating us to act, also broaden awareness and build resources so that the connection between the behavior and positive emotions is amplified. It sounds complicated, but basically what happens is that the positive emotions that my father gets when he goes on a walk become even stronger than they were to begin with. So his walks become an even greater source of happiness, which further increases his motivation to head outside, even on cold winter days.

The bottom line is that you need to find ways of increasing your well-being that are rewarding. If you hate going to the gym, but love to dance, you’ll be much more likely to keep up your exercise routine by taking a Zumba class. If you haven’t been able to find a single type of exercise that you like, then you need to find some way of connecting exercise with something you enjoy. My husband loves to read, so he uses his runs as an opportunity to listen to audio books. I can always tell when he is “reading” a good book, because he runs a lot more often.

What lifestyle change are you trying to make? Find something you enjoy doing or connect the desired behavior with something that will increase your positive emotions. This will lead to an upward spiral that will keep you motivated to stay the course.