John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Positive Psychology


Today is Thanksgiving.

Sadly, many of us only think about gratitude one day out of the year. But I think it's a good practice for your every day life. Every now and then, you might ask, "What are you grateful for?"

Life is hard and sometimes it's just so easy to focus on darkness, pain, suffering, bad behavior, and struggle. But let us not forget the light, the good, the joy, the love, the gifts we are given…

What are you grateful for? For me, more often than not it's about people. But every now and then, the perfect cup of coffee, lunch out with my beloved, a delightful discussion with my daughter, the pleasure of good piece of chocolate…

Not to mention a good piece of turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Ah, the good life. But what is it?

I like Martin Seligman’s definition. The good life, as he sees it, is made up of five components:

  • Positive emotion. Otherwise known as feeling good.
  • Engagement. Activities that cause to lose track of time, for instance.
  • Relationships. We are hard-wired to connect. Good relationships make for a good life.
  • Meaning. Making an investment in something that is bigger than one’s self.
  • Achievement. Accomplishing things that matter to us.

Happiness is more than feeling good. Ever tried to learn a musical instrument? Complete college? Play Bridge? Play a sport? Some activities test us and tax us, but they may come to have deep meaning for us nonetheless. Seligman suggests that “feeling good” may be the least important component of the group.

Which doesn’t mean we don’t want to feel good. We do. It’s just that there may be more to happiness than positive emotion.

Also, it’s not enough to achieve our goals; we also need to
appreciate our achievements, perhaps even savor them.

What the good life is not: the wealthy life, the ideal life, the stress-free life, the idle life.

What is the "good life?"

I like Martin Seligman’s definition. The good life, as he sees it, is made up of these components:

  • Positive emotion. Otherwise known as feeling good.
  • Engagement. Activities that cause to lose track of time, for instance.
  • Relationships. We are hard-wired to connect. Good relationships make for a good life.
  • Meaning. Making an investment in something that is bigger than one’s self.
  • Achievement. Accomplishing things that matter to us.

Happiness is more than feeling good. Ever tried to learn a musical instrument? Complete college? Play Bridge? Play a sport? Some activities test us and tax us, but they may come to have deep meaning for us nonetheless. Seligman suggests that “feeling good” may be the least important component of the group.

Which doesn’t mean we don’t want to feel good. We do. It’s just that there may be more to happiness than positive emotion.

Also, it’s not enough to achieve our goals; we also need to
appreciate our achievements, perhaps even savor them.

What the good life is not: the wealthy life, the ideal life, the stress-free life, the idle life.

What is happiness?

Many people equate happiness with good feeling or positive emotion. But according to Martin Seligman, author of the book Flourish, happiness is more than being cheerful or smiley.

Seligman suggests that happiness is composed of five components: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, relationships, and accomplishment. And here's the surprising part: he says that positive emotion ranks at the
bottom of the list.

When we are deeply engaged in a task –- think of an activity where you lose track of time because you're so absorbed by it –- Seligman says that people do not, in fact, report much feeling at all. They're too submersed in the activity. Deep engagement requires a focus on something other than the self, and it usually takes us right out to the very edge of our skill. In those moments, people are not cheerful, they're absorbed.

But it's not enough to be engaged by activities. We must have meaning in our lives, too. Human beings will tolerate a great deal of hardship for the sake of what something means to them. How people knock themselves out on a job they don't like because of what it means to their family?

And relationships, at least for most of us, are a primary source of meaning. If you doubt this, just count the number of people you see on their cell phones the next time you go out into the world. These devices feed our need for connection.

you happy? If not, which part of the puzzle is missing for you?

If you decide to improve you overall level of happiness you're likely to find it frustrating because "happiness" is simply too abstract to be useful. But if you focus on the
components of happiness, as Seligman suggests, you'll have a much easier time of it. You can resolve to find tasks that engage you deeply. You can take a "meaning inventory" to determine what, if anything, needs changing. You can establish bonds with others. And you can arrange your life to maximize those accomplishments that would actually mean something to you.

This is what it means to flourish.

The Opposite of Happiness

Is distress the opposite of happiness?

I don't think so. I think the opposite of happiness is boredom.

Let me take this a step further. There's so much talk, these days, about happiness. Thanks to a movement known as positive psychology, you can find scores of books on subject. Indeed, I've listed a few of them on this website under the Helpful Books page.

And yet, I'm not always so convinced that happiness is the brass ring that people are really grasping for. Joseph Campbell, the late mythologist, once said he wasn't looking for the meaning of life so much as THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING ALIVE.

That's what I think people really want. They want to feel alive, vibrant, or excited.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied the psychology of optimal experience, which, for shorthand's sake, he called FLOW. I think this is much closer to what most people really want. Think of some domain that requires skill. Brain surgery, psychotherapy, video games, tennis, whatever.

When there is a perfect match between your level of skill and the challenges presented activites within the domain, you're likely to experience flow –– that state of mind when you are completely absorbed by the activity itself. However, if the challenge is greater than your skill, you'll feel uncomfortable, possibly anxious. And if the challenge is significantly below your skill, you're feel bored.

Why are video games so compelling? Why do we play sports? We do people jump off bridges with a rope tied to their feet? Why do people climb mountains when they already know what's at the top? Why, despite the dangers, did extreme sports come into existence? Why do people travel to exotic lands?

It's difficult to seek happiness. It's just too elusive. It's much easier, however, to identify activities that produce flow –– jobs, hobbies, or relationships –- and then to arrange our lives so that we engage in these activities regularly.

Feeling fully alive –- isn't this what it really means to be rich?

Related blog entries:
Flow and Savoring

Expressive Writing

Writing expressively is a deep dive into the dark waters of your soul.

James Pennebaker and his colleagues have shown that when people write about a stressful life event for just 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days, they reduce the number of sick days they report, improve immune functioning, and decrease dysphoria (negative moods) and anxiety.

In other words, writing makes you feel better, but it also helps you physical body. (Is this not cool?)

Why? Writing is one way of helping you transform negative experiences. Writing about pain helps you find meaning in your experience, and place it in the broader context of your life story.

If you're going try expressive writing, make sure you write honestly, openly, and without filtering your emotions. You're more likely to write like this is you make an agreement with yourself that the output will be kept strictly private.

Unlike a diary, which is a record of the day's events, expressive writing requires you to plunge into your subjective experience. What you feel, think, want, need, wish for. And –– most importantly –- what hurts.

Don't worry about good grammer or being literary. What matters is that you dive deep into what you truly feel.

Skeptical? Fair enough. But maybe try refraining from passing judgment on it until you've tried it.

The Happiness Project

If you haven’t already seen it, you might check out Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project.
She is the author of the book by the same name. Hers is one of my favorite blogs.

The Power of Belief

Do you believe your abilities can be cultivated over the course of your life, or do you believe everyone gets a fixed endowment of abilities that are essentially carved in stone?

What you believe about yourself with respect to your abilities may have profound implications for your life. According to Carol Dweck, psychologist and researcher, some individuals have a ‘growth’ mindset whereas others have ‘fixed’ mindset. According to her findings, a growth-mindset is more likely to lead to success. A fixed mindset limits achievement.

It works like this. Individuals with a fixed mindsets fall into a trap of needing to prove themselves again and again. After all, if you only get so much ability, who wants to believe they were given a modest amount of it to start with? Better to establish that you’ve got plenty of ability––and then seek situations that support or prove that view, and avoid those that don’t.

This means, however, that you’ll be more likely to avoid situations where you might fail because failure would constitute evidence that maybe you’re abilities were quite as ample as you’d previously believed. It also means that if you did fail at something, you’re less likely to return to it with full effort because, hey, if your abilities are fixed in the first place, why try?

But for persons with growth mindsets, who believe abilities can be cultivated over time, failure is not something to fear. Failure is often how we learn. In other words, if you believe your abilities are elastic, why not stretch yourself? Not surprisingly, people with this mindset place a premium on effort.

Dweck points out in her book, MINDSET, that history is replete with famous persons who were originally thought to have a modest endowment of ability but then went on to become successful in some endeavor. Leo Tolstoy, Charles Darwin, and Ben Hogan are examples from literature, science, and sports of individuals who were, in their youth, viewed as nothing special. And yet each went on extraordinary accomplishments later in life.

The good news is that you can change your mindset. If a fixed mindset is holding you back--and her research suggests that it probably is--you can choose to adopt a growth mindset. Beliefs are not permanent. Beliefs can be changed. The truth about abilities is that they are, indeed, malleable.

Dweck’s research points to the remarkable power of belief, but it also makes a good case for the power of effort. The novelist John Irving has pointed out that his talents for his two passions, creative writing and wrestling, were considered, early in his life, modest at best. But a wrestling coach persuaded him not to give up, but to work hard. As it turns out, he’s written a number of highly successful and entertaining novels, in addition to being inducted into the wrestling hall-of-fame.

Our beliefs about ourselves and others have great power. But some beliefs do not serve us. Some beliefs need to be re-examined and, when possible, tested for validity. If we have restricted notions of who we can become, we will naturally limit our efforts and our persistence. But if we believe we can grow our abilities and talents, we will not be afraid to toil, even when the task is hard.

Your potential is unknown. But don’t let that stop you from reaching for it.


If I had to pick out just one self-help book, I’d go with Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

What is flow? It’s that moment when you are so absorbed by some activity that you lose complete track of time. Nothing else seems to matter. This experience is so enjoyable that people will go to great lengths to do it, even if it means risking life and limb (rock climbing is an example).

Flow is that state in which you feel completely focused on the activity itself. During flow, the self is not found so much as lost. When we are completely absorbed by an activity, we are not worrying about the future, ruminating about the past, or bored with the present. We are deeply engaged, deeply focused.

Flow is what it means to be happy.

In theory, flow can be found anywhere there are challenges to be had. Rock climbers will report flow, but so will surgeons. Reading a good book will absorb some people so deeply that they will forget about the time. If the challenges exceed our skills, we feel anxious. If the challenges are below our skills, we feel bored. Flow is the perfect match between challenge and skill. Just ask the chess master what it means to face the right opponent.

What activity do you do for its own sake? Read, write, water ski, dance, bird-watch...

Mike C’s book (apparently people find it easier to refer to him as Mike C) isn’t a self-help book in the traditional sense. It does not dispense much advice. What it does do is try to lay out the general principles of flow so that people can think more deliberately about finding activities that produce it. Once you starting looking at your world in terms of flow-producing activities, you will not be the same.

We are not, Mike C shows up, particularly happy when are idle. True happiness seems to be a consequence of deep engagement with life. Indeed, some of the activities that people report as making them most happy actually require a fair amount of effort.

Every notice how some people love their work and others hate it? Do you think this is only about the pay or the working conditions? In fact, some people are able to create lives in which they get paid for being in a flow much of the time. [I can attest to this. When I do therapy, I am deeply focused in the moment. Listening well requires deep concentration.]

Flow: the Psychological of Optimal Experience. Read this book; it just might change your life. It did mine.

Experiments in Gratitude

Lately I’ve been thinking about gratitude.

On any given day, there are moments when I feel grateful for someone or something. Lately I’ve been making it a point to pay closer attention to these moments. For instance, after spending hours at the hospital, waiting, a staff member offer to get me a cup of ice water. Or I’m buying lunch and the clerk offers to pitch in a nickel and two pennies to help cover the loose change in my bill. Or I’m miles from a sick family member, and another family member offers to be my eyes and ears to help me keep track of what’s happening. I’ve made it a point to appreciate these small acts of kindness, and, if possible, express my gratitude.

Recent research by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough suggests that the positive emotional state of gratitude is linked to happiness and well being. Gratitude turns out to be linked to life satisfaction, optimistic expectations about the future, and even physical well-being (less physical complaints). Apparently the old adage of “Count your Blessings” may have had more benefits associated with it than we realized.

In the past, I suppose I thought of gratitude more in terms of the receiver. Saying “thank you” is a form of common courtesy, of being civil. But I’d not given as much thought to giver. We when say thank you, we feel good. Apparently, the act of expressing our gratitude amplifies positive experience.

In my case, once I let myself notice those times when I felt grateful, I was initially surprised by the frequency with which they occurred. Every day I found something I was grateful for, and at first I was struck by how often I took this emotional state for granted. Usually it was connected to an act of kindness displayed by another person, and usually these were acts that I could acknowledge in the moment. Afterwards, by attending to the experience, I realized these experiences really did make me feel good.

If gratitude is one of the consistent ways we have of feeling happier (and healthier), it may very well be worth our time to learn how to cultivate it. I found it helpful just to pay attention to the small acts of kindness that came my way. But Martin Seligman has developed a technique he calls the “gratitude letter.” This involves identifying someone you truly feel grateful towards, writing them a letter (a thoughtful letter, which often takes weeks to craft), laminating the letter, and then presenting the letter as a gift, in person, where it can be read aloud. Seligman claims that this has turned out to be one of the more popular exercises he’s created for his positive psychology class. The really interesting part is, the gratitude letter boosts the giver’s mood, but unlike some many other things we do to make ourselves feel better, this one tends to last.


So the other day my daughter and I were sitting at a coffee shop in the middle of the afternoon, her eating a muffin and me drinking a cup hot chocolate. As it happens, we were sitting very close to a young man who was grinding coffee beans. Although I’m not a coffee drinker, I commented to my daughter that I liked the smell, and she agreed. But then she said, “If you really want a good smell trip, you should walk by Kilwin’s in the summer.”

(My daughter is in middle school. She says things like smell trip.)

I knew exactly what she walking about, of course. She and I have a shared fondness for chocolate.

Which is what got to me thinking about savoring.

We all know what the word means. But years ago, when I was at Loyola, I learned that Fred Bryant, a psychology professor there, had been studying the concept of savoring. So, being the good graduate student that I was, I hunted down a couple of his papers and read them. Mind you, these were research papers. Not exactly what you think of when you think of savoring. Now, however, years later, the savoring concept has found new life in the field of positive psychology.

Savoring is defined as “attending to, appreciating, and enhancing positive experience.”

Reading about it, and practicing about it, changed my life. Even though I read about years ago, it is one of the few things that I continue to do to this day.

I’m almost embarrassed to tell you some of things I savor. But I will. I savor the smell of a good used bookstore. I know several around the Chicago area, and whenever I walk into one, especially after not having been there for months, I inhale the smell of books.

I also have a special stone that sits on office desk. Picture an arrowhead only bigger–– more like a spearhead. Although it was given to me by my grandfather, its value to me is not sentimental. I like because of it’s shape and texture. Especially its texture. I savor the way the stone feels in my hand. Its rough edges and heft satisfy my sense of touch.

When you think of savoring, do you think only of food and taste? What Fred Bryant showed through his studies was that any virtually any positive experience could be savored. Even the memory of a positive event can be savored. Savoring is close to the experience of pleasure, but it’s not identical to it. Savoring is about drawing pleasure out, almost as if your suspending it your mind. If I eat ice cream, I experience pleasure. But if I eat it slowly, and let the sweetness of it linger in my mouth and mind, I’m savoring it.

And why, you ask, does savoring matter? Why make a big deal of it?

Well, for one thing, by enhancing positive experience, we buffer ourselves again stress. Maybe not hugely so, but just enough.

But there’s more to it than that, I think. We have a bias in our culture about looking towards the big events in our lives as the main sources of our happiness. Who among us, for instance, does not wish he or she could win the lottery? Of course this would make us feel good.

But what the savoring research has to tell us is that, when it comes to well-being, small experiences also matter. Indeed, I would argue that small experiences, because they are so common and so frequent, may even matter more than some than some big events. In my case, I remember certain key events in my life that made me feel good. The birth of my daughter is a prime example. But how often do things like that happen? In contrast, I savor something about the particulars of life almost every day.

We can savor any number of experiences. It’s not act of experiencing pleasure per se, but the act of attending closely to that pleasure, appreciating it, and dare I say elongating it.

Which is pretty much what I was doing that day I was sitting with my daughter in the coffee shop. The taste of the hot chocolate. The smell of the coffee beans being ground. The sound of daughter’s voice.


Strengths redux

In my original post on identifying strengths, I realized there something else I wanted to say:

Ignore your weaknesses.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Most of us have been coached or counseled to fix our weaknesses. If you doubt this, think back to feedback you were given in school or on a job. How much time did your evaluator spend talking about strategies for correcting weaknesses as compared to ways to bettter use your strengths?

And of course it sounds good. Who wants to be hampered by things they don’t do well?

But here’s the thing: when successful people are studied, it turns out that they don’t actually spend that much time trying to fix their weakness. It’s not that they don’t have them; they do. Rather, they figure out a way to work around them.

Sometimes that means ignoring them altogether.

Other times it means working on a weakness just enough to meet minimum requirements for a particular skill.

And still others times it means enlisting the help of other people to compensate for your weaknesses.

Whichever strategy you use, the lesson is clear: limit the amount to time you spend trying to develop your weaknesses. Throw the bulk of your energy in the direction of your strengths. You’ll go farther, you’ll go faster.

And you’ll also increase the odds of success and happiness.

Do you want to be happier? First, identify your strengths

In 2001, when I set up my practice, one of the promises I made to myself was that I would create an environment that would allow me to do my very best work. I could have joined a group practice, but the idea of working solo appealed to my introverted nature. Likewise, I could have hired a support staff (associates, receptionist, billing specialist) to make a my practice bigger, but I what I really wanted to do was to make something that was
simple by design. If you rummage through my blog, you'll find a post there in which I suggest that happiness is may be a by-product of playing to one's strengths. Frankly, this is why I set up my practice the way I did. I sought to leverage my strengths as a practitioner. Rather than try to be all things to all people, I narrowed my focus. For instance, I don’t provide psychological testing, therapy for children, group therapy, or evaluation for the courts. These are valuable services but they not my areas of strength. What I do best, I believe, is provide individual and couple therapy for adults.

I have strong convictions about the way I believe therapy should be conducted. For instance, I do not believe in providing therapy as if you were running an assembly line. That is, seeing as many patients as possible in any given workday to maximize your income. When practitioners take this approach, it's easy to fall into the trap of treating every client the same, regardless of his or her situation, problem, or personality. I don't think this is the way good therapy is done. Rather, every therapy must be tailored to meet the needs of any given individual or client. Doing therapy this way means that I have to place thoughtful limits on how much I do and the way I do it. It also means that I have opted not to take on managed care contracts, which offer practitioners a higher volume of referrals in exchange for discounted fees. I prefer quality of service over quantity. If I have an advantage over big practices that do work with managed care companies, it’s that in my practice nobody slips between the cracks. Every client I work gets my complete and undivided attention.

I suppose you could my life has a quest: I have devoted my adult life to understanding the human psyche. Even though my graduate school days are long gone, I still study. I seek out the best information I can find, from the best minds and the most talented researchers. I reflect on my life and the lives of others, and I seek wisdom wherever I can find it. My job is to help people alleviate distress and create more meaningful lives. This is what I do. This is who I am.